HERE COME GIANTS; WITHER TIGERS?

By Murray Chass

July 1, 2012

Sometimes I annoy myself by not being quick enough to translate thoughts to Web site. Occasionally in recent seasons I have had a hunch that a particular team that hadn’t played especially well would nevertheless finish first. Sometimes those teams have won division titles, but I can’t claim credit for my foresight because I never publicly declared my prediction.

It’s premature to know if I will endure this experience this season, but I am guilty of waiting too long to state my belief that the San Francisco Giants would catch the Los Angeles Dodgers and win the National League West title. I still believe it, but the surging Giants slipped ahead of the faltering Dodgers last Thursday, knocking them from the top for the first time since the first week of the season.Doug Fister 225

Half the season remains so anything can happen in that division race, but I like the Giants, whom I started thinking about as a division champion during the last three weeks of May, a period in which they ranged from a season-high 7 1\2 games to 5 out of first.

In another division, I won’t be late making this call. I may not be right either, but I think the Detroit Tigers will finally get it right in the second half and finish in first place in the forgiving American League Central.

“We have to play better,” Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ president and general manager, said when I asked him Friday what the Tigers have to do to win the division. “It’s very elementary. We haven’t jelled together as a team on a consistent basis all year long. We have to do that. We haven’t scored the runs we thought we were going to score.”

The Tigers are fifth in the league in runs scored but are bunched with five other teams in the low 300s. Their leading hitters, as expected, have been Miguel Cabrera, with a .309 batting average, 16 home runs and 62 runs batted in, and Prince Fielder (.297, 12, 50).

“Getting Jackson and Avila back in the lineup has been important,” Dombrowski said, referring to center fielder Austin Jackson and catcher Al Avila, who each missed a couple of weeks with muscle strains.

But Dombrowski also said, “We need more consistent starting pitching. Porcello needs to pitch better. Fister has not been the Fister we know.”

Doug Fister, a 28-year-old right-hander, put together an 8-1 record with a 1.79 earned run average after the Tigers obtained him from Seattle last July 30. That record was a dramatic turnaround from his 12-30 record with the Mariners. However, he has reverted this season, winning only one of six decisions when he wasn’t disabled by a strained side.

As Fister did with his 8-1 record, Porcello helped the Tigers win a division title last season with a 14-9 record. This season, though, he has a 5-5 record.

The pitcher who helped the most last year, Justin Verlander, has already lost as many games as he lost all of 2011, five, with eight wins and a 2.68 e.r.a. compared with his 2.40 for all of last season when he won 24 games, not to mention the most valuable player and Cy Young awards..

That the Tigers were only five games out of first before Saturday’s games and were as close as two games only four days before that was promising considering that they have not had a winning record since May 10 (16-15).

The White Sox and the Indians, meanwhile, have divided first place between them.

“It’s wide open,” Dombrowski said of the A.L. Central race. “No one’s running away with it, but anybody can always win it.”

Not everyone has a chance to win the National League West title, but the Giants have sure done a good job recently of knocking the Dodgers off the most-likely-winner perch.

The Dodgers spent virtually the entire season in first place until last week when a streak of four straight shutouts propelled the Giants past Los Angeles. The Dodgers, who not long ago had the best record in the majors, woke up Sunday with 11 losses in their last 12 games and five shutouts in their last six games.

Some Dodgers’ followers might blame the mid-season tumble on the absence of Matt Kemp, one of the league’s most productive hitters. But the slugging center fielder, recovering from a strained hamstring, has started only one of the Dodgers’ last 42 games.

Now add right fielder Andre Ethier and his strained oblique to the mix, and the Dodgers plunge could become even more precarious.

The Giants will go as far as their pitching will take them, and their pitching is good enough to take them a great distance.

Madison Bumgarner2 225In their shutout streak last week, Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum each pitched seven innings and Madison Bumgarner topped them by allowing the Reds one hit in his complete game, a sixth-inning single by Ryan Hanigan.

Interestingly, the starter who was unable to extend the streak to five straight shutouts, which only the 1903 Pittsburgh pitchers accomplished, was Matt Cain, who only a couple of weeks earlier pitched a perfect game.

What about the other division races?

The Washington Nationals have led the National League East since May 22, but skeptics remain. The Nationals’ biggest threat could come from the Philadelphia Phillies once Ryan Howard joins Chase Utley as returning wounded, but the Phillies aren’t likely to do anything until they can get Cliff Lee his first victory of the season.

R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana are doing a great job helping the New York Mets resemble a contender, but in reality? No way.

The Miami Marlins played the role of a contender briefly, getting to second place only half a game from first, but 15 losses in 17 games gave them a jolt of reality.

In the N.L. Central the Pirates have grabbed attention by having a winning record on every day in June but one, but let’s be serious. These are the 19-year losers we’re talking about, and no miracle has occurred in Pittsburgh since Franco Harris caught a deflected pass 40 years ago.

I’m tempted to suggest that in the A.L. West close attention should be paid to the Anaheim team, but Texas doesn’t seem capable of folding.

The Yankees began threatening to pull away in the A.L. East, but then their top two starters – they had already lost their closer, Super Mariano, for the season – took a detour to the disabled list. Their absence may very well insure a race of two or more teams. I don’t see Baltimore being one of them. Boston? If this were a horse race, the notes after the results would say “the Red Sox also ran.”

DODGERS GAIN FREEDOM, BUT IT’S NOT FREE

The Dodgers, free of Frank McCourt’s stranglehold on their treasury and their throat, have declared themselves back in the game, by deed and by word.Yasel Puig

Last week they signed a Cuban defector, Yasiel Puig, luring him west with a $42 million contract.

“This is a snapshot of what we hope to be able to do,” general manager Ned Colletti told reporters on a telephone conference call. “It’s great to be able to compete at the highest level, including the amateur level.”

Some critics said the Dodgers overspent by plenty on the 21-year-old outfielder, but they were clearly acting as someone who had just been liberated.

“If there’s a baseball deal to be made,” Colletti said, “whether it’s July, August, November, December, we’ll be after it.

“You’re always expected to be responsible, to do the sensible thing,” he added. “It doesn’t mean you do it just to do it because you have extra money. We can be more open-minded, but it doesn’t mean we’ll be more active. You still need the right ingredients.

But if there’s a baseball trade to be made, the financial part of it will be less a component than in the past.”

POLITICS AND HUMOR DON’T MIX

Kevin Youkilis White Sox 225When a person gets into politics, particularly when he runs for a high office, something must happen to his brain. Maybe it’s the grind, maybe it’s the process, maybe it’s the party with which the office-seeker is affiliated. But I cite a recent example of what I’m talking about.

Speaking in Boston last week, President Obama made a remark about the trade the Red Sox had just made to send third baseman Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox. Obama is a White Sox fan. He was in Boston.

“Boston,” the President said, “I just want to say thank you for Youkilis.”

Many in the crowd booed – good naturedly, some reports said – though it’s possible they were using the Red Sox fans’ term of endearment for the veteran player – “Yoooouk.”

But the crowd’s reaction doesn’t matter. What matters is the reaction of Mitt Romney’s campaign. Romney is a former governor of Massachusetts and Obama’s presumptive Republican opponent in his bid for re-election in November.

The next day Romney’s press secretary, Andrea Sauls began her daily e-mail to reporters by accusing Obama of having taunted Red Sox fans, comparing it to some of the most disastrous events in Red Sox history.

“Maybe the president should have congratulated the team for winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007,” Sauls wrote. “Instead, he chose to mock them for trading away one of its favorite players at a time when the team is struggling.”

Obviously, Sauls made that remark for political effect, but it was dumb nevertheless and it was foolish of her to defend Red Sox fans. They can take care of themselves. And if I wanted to be as foolish as Romney’s press secretary, I could say if the president was taunting the fans, bravo for him.

A GOOSE, A TURKEY AND A TALE OF FICTION

Nora Ephron, a talented writer and screenwriter, died last week, but producers of a play she wrote about a New York newspaper columnist said they will proceed with plans to put the show on Broadway. The columnist was Mike McAlary, and though I haven’t seen the script, anything written about him should probably be classified as fiction.

Not that McAlary himself didn’t exist, but he did some of his best writing as fiction.Mike McAlary

Before he became a two-fisted crime columnist, McAlary was a sports writer with the New York Post. Sports writers from other newspapers who covered events with him were often mystified seeing managers, coaches and players saying things in the Post that they hadn’t heard the day or night before.

The best story I remember about McAlary’s style of sports fiction was a comment he attributed to a Detroit Tigers player after a 1983 game. It was captured in a Post headline in large type: WILSON: GOOSE IS A TURKEY

Glenn Wilson had hit a ninth-inning home run against Goose Gossage, sealing a Tigers’ victory, and supposedly is what Wilson told McAlary after the game. The only problem was Wilson said he never said such a thing.

In fact, Wilson panicked when he saw the headline. Gossage threw as hard as any pitcher, harder than most, and Wilson was terrified that Gossage would see the headline and throw at his head the next time they faced each other.

The minute Wilson got to the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium that day he wrote a note telling Gossage he never said that and had a clubhouse attendant deliver it to the Yankees’ clubhouse.

Wilson survived.

McAlary’s penchant for creating quotes became a subject of speculation a few years later. McAlary was a crime columnist for New York Newsday, and he was covering a police scandal in Brooklyn in 1986. One day he had an interview with one of the cops who were the chief targets of the investigation, and the next day the cop, Brian O’Regan, was found shot to death in a motel room, a gun in one hand, a copy of McAlary’s Newsday article in the other.

McAlary’s column quoted the cop, and some of us who knew McAlary’s sports past speculated that McAlary had made up something and attributed it to the officer, who felt it was so bad that no one would believe he didn’t say it and decided the only way out was to shoot himself.

McAlary died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 41.

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