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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Even Year Magic Secrets Finally Revealed

The San Francisco Giants were eliminated from the 2016 post-season despite this being an even year. Despite fans claiming there was "Even Year Magic" and that the Giants were destined to win every other year, the Giants magic was finally revealed as just another magic trick.

This isn't new. In 2002, Anaheim Angels fans believed in the "Rally Monkey." For 86 years, the Boston Red Sox fans believed in "The Curse of the Bambino" and for the last 71 years, Chicago Cubs fans have heard about "The Curse of the Billy Goat." On a side note, Bill Murray, a lifelong Cubs fan, is one of many who don't believe in that curse anymore as was made clear at Wrigley Field during the National League Division Series in the form of a classic T-Shirt.

So why do fans torture themselves with these superstitions? Because as die hard fans, we need to justify why things are happening. It is easier to think that a team is cursed or that a team is destined for their success. It is much harder to face reality that a fan's team just isn't good enough or that their team made too many mistakes to win.

No matter what we believe, no matter what the players on the field believe and no matter what anyone thinks, sports isn't pre-written. There is no Hollywood script that has pre-determined the outcome. Regardless of the decision a manager makes or the pitch a pitcher decides to throw or the approach a hitter takes to the plate, anything can happen.

You hear cliches all the time for why a team wins or loses. "It just wasn't our night" or "they just seem to catch all the breaks" or "it just wasn't meant to be."

These cliches are cliches in the first place because of how often players use them as excuses for coming up short in big games. More importantly, they are coping mechanisms in the heat of the moment to deal with an unfair reality. That reality is that no matter how hard you've worked and no matter how badly you want something, in life, you still might come up short.

That is what makes sports so great and also what makes sports so heart wrenching. We love sports for it's unpredictability and for it's excitement. However, that comes at a price of pain and suffering for teams and for fans that come up short.

Yes, the Giants won World Series championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Yes, they made the post-season once again in 2016. Yes, a man with 31 career home runs who would not have started had the Giants everyday third baseman been healthy became just the next post-season hero in a long line of post-season heroes for the Giants. Every even year, a relative unknown seems to have all their best games in Octobers for the Giants and none of them had the same level of success in any other year of their career. As he tripled in Game 3, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Conor Gillaspie was just the next October legend for the Giants. And yet, despite another unlikely hot bat in yet another even year, the even year magic became just an illusion like we all knew it was.

The Chicago Cubs had different plans and outplayed the Giants in the best of five series. The Cubs are moving on to the National League Championship Series and many Giants fans woke up this morning confused as to how their team could lose in an even year. The number one reason is they were facing a 103 win Cubs team that was better than they were. They had a better lineup with a better defense and a pitching staff that was up to the challenge. They were better in all three phases of the game. And yet, instead of a sweep like in each of the American League Division Series, the Giants lost by a single run in two of the three games and the last of which saw them have a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning. The Giants could have easily forced a deciding fifth game, and for Cubs fans who have seen heartbreak for 108 straight seasons, that would have been just more cruel and unusual punishment. They even would have some personal context as the 1984 Cubs had the same thing happen to them in the playoffs.

The Cubs were the better team and when you play in a five or seven game series, the better team usually wins. It doesn't always happen, and the even year Giants had made a habit of beating the better teams. They had made such a habit of it that they set a Major League Record for winning 10 games in a row in elimination games. Since 2012, the Giants had not lost in an elimination game and Game 4 of the NLDS seemed like 11.

But now, the even year narrative is gone and the Giants head into an off-season with holes to fill and what-ifs to ponder over. Fans knew the even year thing wasn't real. They knew it wasn't real because the team didn't make the playoffs in 2008, 2006 or 2004 and lost in the World Series in 2002. For 52 years, no San Francisco Giants team had ever won a championship and during the 2010 World Series parade in the streets of San Francisco, nobody mentioned anything about it being an even year.

As fans, we get invested in our favorite teams and we figuratively live and die with the results. Now that the Giants and Red Sox have been eliminated, we are guaranteed to see a fan base see a World Series drought finally end. The Toronto Blue Jays have had the most recent success, winning back to back titles in 1992 and 1993. The Los Angeles Dodgers last won in 1988. The Cleveland Indians last won in 1948. The Washington Nationals have never won a World Series in their history in Washington or Montreal and the Cubs drought has been well documented.

As we see the next champion crowned, we might here fans talk about a superstition that worked or something the players did all year and that will bleed into next season as a rallying cry for the next pursuit of a championship. It is only natural. As fans, we prefer to justify our anger and our passions to try and make sense of our love for our teams. And when we finally win after decades or even a century of torture, we want to try and do all the same things we did last time to repeat that success. Unfortunately, for 29 teams every season, the last game usually ends in disappointment.

But I think it cam be summed up best by Noah Syndergaard, who's message after a gut wrenching Wild Card game loss says everything about why we love the game and why losing on the biggest stages hurts so much.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The San Francisco Giants are Even Year-ing Again

It is hard to explain what to make of the 2016 San Francisco Giants. They were the best team in the game at the All-Star break, as I wrote about here. They were also one of the worst in the game in the second half of the season, as I wrote about here. Yet, here we are in October, in 2016, and the Giants are back in the playoffs. Is it their pitching? Is it their defense? Is it their timely hitting? Or is it that the year on the calendar can be divided by two.

The Giants have done this before. In 2010 and 2014, they waited until the final day of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth. They won the National League West in 2010 on the final day of the season, beating the San Diego Padres in a thriller, and in 2014, they made it in as a Wild Card team, having to travel to Pittsburgh for a one game playoff. Two years later, they are back in the same spot all over again, except this time they were in New York.

After an absolute thriller that saw two titans going head to head, the Giants and another unlikely hero joined the history books of Giant lore. This time, his name was Conor Gillaspie. Meanwhile, the Paul Bunyan figure that masquerades as a starting pitcher shone brightest, and Madison Bumgarner sent the Giants to a National League Division Series match-up with the best team in baseball.

The Chicago Cubs won 103 games. The Giants won 87. On paper, this shouldn't even be a series. On paper, the Giants are severe underdogs. But, the Giants have seen this script before. There was more talent on rosters in Philadelphia, Texas, Detroit, St. Louis, Washington and Kansas City. The Giants weren't favored in any of those series, and yet somehow, someway, found a way to win.

How do the Giants keep doing this? Did they make a deal with the Baseball Gods for all the breaks to go there way in October? Do they have some secret formula no other team has quite mastered the ingredients of?

One thing is crystal clear: When the brightest of lights are on the Giants, they play their best baseball.

In the off-season, I wrote a piece on the Giants winning in 2016 because of the "Even Year Magic" and how the reason they could win the World Series this year was the "Magic Wondoo" of 2016 and more importantly, talent.

That talent shown through in the first half of the season yet seemed missing in action the second half of the season. However, the Giants are on a five game win streak that included wins over the top pitchers in all of baseball, including Clayton Kershaw and most recently Noah Syndergaard. They have been beating playoff caliber pitchers all week and they head to Chicago with more Cy Young candidates on the menu, starting with Jon Lester.

Johnny Cueto goes tonight in Game 1 on the NLDS vs the Cubs

Will the Giants have what it takes to continue to defy the odds? I wouldn't bet against them in an even year.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Giants are in the Post Season Because...Even Year

It is hard to explain what to make of the 2016 San Francisco Giants. They were the best team in the game at the All-Star break, and one of the worst in the game since. Yet, here we are in October, in 2016, and the Giants are back in the playoffs. Is it their pitching? Is it their defense? Is it their timely hitting? Or is it the year on the calendar.

The Giants have done this before. In 2010 and 2014, they waited until the final day of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth. They won the National League West in 2010 on the final day of the season, beating the San Diego Padres in a thriller, and in 2014, they made it in as a Wild Card team, having to travel to Pittsburgh for a one game playoff. Two years later, they are back in the same spot all over again, except this time they are in New York.

The Giants experience is clear. They have several players with multiple World Series rings and heading into tonight's game, there should be confidence in the visitor locker room. However, momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher and the Mets have Noah Syndergaard going tonight. The Giants have their own mythical figure in Madison Bumgarner, but Thor, as he's known in Gotham City, has become God-like in his own right this season. Winning Game 3 of the World Series last year proved that Syndergaard can succeed in October. Bumgarner's track record has become the book of legend.

So do the defending NL Pennant winning Mets dethrone the inevitability of "Even Year Magic?" That will be the question.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Why the Cubs Should be Scared of the Giants and Why They Should Not

The San Francisco Giants have had two seasons in 2016. The 1st half was borderline dominant with elite pitching, superb defense and timely hitting. The Giants finished off the first half with the best record in baseball and had me declaring they were the best team in baseball.

As the Giants headed into the second half of the season, the playoffs seemed a certainty.

Then came the second half of the season, and after being swept in San Diego, the roller coaster never seemed to stop going down. After a 26-42 record in the 2nd half, the Giants needed to win four straight to make the second wild card game. After starting the season 57-33, nobody anticipated having to scratch and claw for 30 more wins.

But the Giants are in the dance, which is what they have been preaching the entire second half. "If we can just get in, we can make some noise." That has been the mantra. But, by losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, they are now forced to face the New York Mets in New York for the right to play beyond a one game playoff.

So why should the Cubs be scared of this Giants team? Well, it always starts with pitching. Pitching and defense has been the Giants calling card since their 2010 World Series run and it is no different this year. Both Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto will get Cy Young votes and deservedly so. They have both been aces for a team that has lost multiple aces to injury and performance since 2010. With Tim Lincecum gone and Matt Cain struggling to stay healthy, the Giants have rallied around Bumgarner and free agent acquisition Cueto to lead this team. The additions of Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore have also given the Giants innings eaters with strikeout stuff to lead them into the post-season. The Giants have proven in their previous playoff runs that powerful lineups like the Cubs have can become nearly obsolete by elite pitching. The Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers and others found that out in recent Octobers.

So why should the Cubs remain confident? Well it starts with the rest of the Giants pitching. The Giants blew more leads than any team in baseball and their bullpen was at the heart of their problems all season. Santiago Casilla is now their former closer after blowing nine saves himself. Former closer, Sergio Romo has returned to the ninth inning and performed well, but the majority of the Giants bullpen has struggled. Veterans Javier Lopez, Casilla and Romo have had their ups and downs and young pitchers like Derek Law, Hunter Strickland and Josh Osich have shown their inexperience at times.

Winning or losing in the National League Divisional Series will come down to pitching and who throws the ball better. Can Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta outpitch the Giants staff, and will Aroldis Chapman be the difference in the late innings? October is all about pitching and the Giants will scare any team in baseball if their pitching at a championship level.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The San Francisco Giants are the Best Team in Baseball

We are at the halfway point of the season, and heading into the All-Star break, no team in baseball has a better record than the San Francisco Giants. At 57-33, they have a better record than any of the championship teams in recent years. It is certainly starting to look like that "Even Year Magic" has some merit to it after all.

The Giants are wining with pitching. They are led by All-Stars Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. Bumgarner has the numbers to back up being the team's ace, but Cueto has actually been statistically better. Cueto is 13-1 with a 2.47 earned run average and 115 strikeouts. "Johnny Beisbol" might already be the best free agent signing by the Giants since Barry Bonds.

The Giants are winning despite only 50 games so far from Hunter Pence, who has been out with an oblique injury as well as a hamstring injury and 58 games from Angel Pagan, who has also been out with various injuries. Pence and Pagan have been a huge part of what has made the Giants offense work the last several years, and yet the Giants have had to rely on young players from their system to help fill the void. Rookies Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker have been called up this season to play the outfield and their contributions have helped continue the team's winning ways.

The infield is just as unhealthy, with Joe Panik and Matt Duffy each playing only 70 games so far this season. Both are still out as the team heads to the All-Star break. "The Brandons," Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, have picked up the offensive slack, along with the team's best hitter Buster Posey. Posey, who is starting at catcher once again in the All-Star game for the National League, is expected to be the best bat in the Giants lineup. What might be more surprising is that Belt has actually had the better year so far. He leads the team in batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage. He has certainly earned his first trip to the Midsummer Classic.

The Giants bullpen has struggled mightily all season, blowing 17 leads overall. Sergio Romo, who has been one of the best relief pitchers for the Giants in their championship years, was also hurt for most of the 1st half of the season. Romo has only seven appearances, where rookies Josh Osich and Hunter Strickland have 43 and 41 respectively. Relying on young, unproven arms has made things difficult for manager Bruce Bochy in the late innings. Closer Santiago Casilla has four blown saves, but he also has converted 21 saves with a 2.86 ERA. The team is still the hottest team in baseball heading into the break.

In 2011, 2013 and 2015, injuries were one of the reasons the Giants missed the playoffs. So how do the 2016 Giants have the best record in baseball despite missing so many key players? The Giants have had dominant pitching before, but the staff has been especially good this year. Bumgarner and Cueto have led the way, but the team's other big free agent signing, Jeff Samardzija, has also been excellent. I wrote earlier this season how strong Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija has been historically in Giants history. Jake Peavy has had a roller coaster first half. Peavy's first nine starts were rough and fans were clamoring for Peavy to be sent packing and the team was wondering what to do with the veteran. His next nine starts were excellent and has re-established Peavy as one of the team's most reliable pitchers. As I noted on Twitter Sunday, Peavy has had a tale of two seasons already in 2016.

Matt Cain has also had a rough season so far, as well as multiple trips to the disabled list. I wrote more about Peavy and Cain's early struggles in an article earlier this season. Minor league free agent Albert Suarez has stepped in during Cain's absence and really helped solidify the rotation.

That's the other huge component to this year's steady play is the contribution made by several minor league call-ups. Conor Gillaspie, Ramiro Pena, Grant Green and Ruben Tejada have stepped up and helped the Giants find ways to win. Each has been let go by other organizations and are embracing this chance to be a part of a pennant race.

Ultimately, having the best record in the game means very little in July. It will only matter if the record at the end of the season is good enough for a playoff berth. If 2016 is going to be another magical even year for the Giants, they will have to keep this momentum into the Fall. Getting healthy could be as important as any trade they could make, but don't be surprised if the Giants front office looks to address their bullpen before the trade deadline. All things considered, there isn't much to complain about when you are the best team in baseball.