A GIANT QUESTION ARE THE PITCHING-POWERED GIANTS FOR REAL, OR ARE THEY HEADED FOR A BIG SLIDE?

May 11, 1997

For the San Francisco Giants, last weekend was supposed to be a
time of healing, three games in three days against one of the
humblest teams in all of baseballdom, the Cincinnati Reds. You
almost felt sorry for the little red machine. The Giants, those
standings climbers, would use the Reds for their own selfish
purposes. Cincinnati would help prove that the San Francisco of
April, with its flashy 17-7 record, was legit, that its little
road-trip stumble in the final days of the year's cruelest month
was an aberration. The Reds would be an excellent tonic for the
Giants, who opened May with a 3-2 defeat in Pittsburgh.

But San Francisco lost 6-2 to Cincinnati on Friday night. And in
Saturday's matinee the Giants lost again, 3-1, wasting seven
innings of shutout pitching by William VanLandingham, the fourth
pitcher in their five-man rotation. VanLandingham, the man with
the longest full name in major league history, had been intently
reading a book--a serious novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by
Michael Chabon--amid the pregame clubhouse cacophony on Saturday
morning: a good groove sound coming over loudspeakers; a decent
argument about shoe styles in Spanglish; Barry Bonds, a cross
dangling from his left ear, dissing some stranger invading his
space.

By late Saturday afternoon the scene was different. Fifteen
minutes after the defeat, a loss caused in part by three San
Francisco errors, the Giants' clubhouse was lifeless, the way
locker rooms are when good teams drop games they should have
won. There were no discs spinning in the CD player, no singing
in the shower, no banter in the trainer's room. Ron
Perranoski--once the Los Angeles Dodgers' pitching coach, now
San Francisco manager Dusty Baker's bench coach--sat on the
cushioned reclining chair in front of his locker and stared into
space through closed eyes. A couple of kids on the roster, new
to the ways of old-time baseball, were doing the same thing.
This was a serious baseball team, sober in defeat. The Giants'
record was now 17-10.

This 1997 San Francisco team isn't easy to get a handle on. By
all rights it should be pleased to be winning more than it's
losing, given that last season the Giants finished 68-94, good
for last place in the National League West, 23 games behind the
division-champion San Diego Padres. Worthy construction projects
take time. Rome took a while to build, so there's no reason to
think the renovation of San Francisco can be completed
overnight. When its ownership sings the small-market blues (the
Giants share five million-plus Bay Area residents with the
Oakland A's), the lyrics ring largely true ("Got no TV money,
baby/Got a bad stadium lease, too/When I get done paying
Barry/Got me the San Francisco Bay blues"). General manager
Brian Sabean cannot afford big-name free-agent pitchers in the
manner of his former boss, New York Yankees owner George
Steinbrenner. He finds his arms where he can.

The pitching staff is an unlikely assemblage. VanLandingham's
colleagues include reliever Joe Roa (the only player in major
league history with a shorter name was Ed Ott), who toiled for
eight years in the minors before becoming the
player-to-be-named-later in last November's trade of slugging
third baseman Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians. The San
Francisco ace, so-called, is Mark Gardner, a veteran righthander
who entered the season with a 4.39 career earned run average.
Immediately behind Gardner is Shawn Estes, a 24-year-old
southpaw who 24 months ago was a Class A pitcher in the Seattle
Mariners' organization with a bad temper. The No. 3 starter is
Osvaldo Fernandez, a Cuban defector who two years ago was
playing amateur baseball. The closer, Rod Beck, has been one of
the best stoppers in the majors for most of this decade, except
last year, when he finished with an 0-9 record and seven blown
saves. Those pitchers--along with five others rejected from
elsewhere--make up the staff.

And this staff is flourishing. At week's end San Francisco had
the second-lowest team ERA in the National League,
2.73--considerably lower than its 4.71 mark of last season--and
was in second place in the strong National League West, just two
games behind the division-leading Colorado Rockies.

The season is still in dawn, practically. Who knows what the
Giants' ERA will be and whether San Francisco will be in first
place or last when autumn nears. Yes, the Giants began the new
season by winning 14 of their first 18 games. But 10 of those
victories were against a troika of forlorn teams--the Pittsburgh
Pirates, the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. On
April 25, San Francisco began a weeklong road trip in which it
won three times, lost four and played unspectacularly. That
brings us to last Friday, with the Giants back home preparing
for a visit from the Reds.

"Last year the longest anybody was here was about a month," Beck
was saying on Friday, alluding to injuries and trades that kept
the Giants' roster in a state of flux. "This year we've got
major league players who can all field their positions. You can
make your pitches knowing guys are going to catch the ball."
Since first being called up by San Francisco in 1991, Beck has
witnessed the Giants' defensive skills go from superb to
adequate to dismal and now back to good. He knows that one sure
way to improve a pitching staff is to improve the gloves behind
it. This San Francisco has done.

The Giants' new guys at short and second, Jose Vizcaino and Jeff
Kent, respectively, have played together since 1994 and know
each other's moves and work the double play well. J.T. Snow, the
new first baseman, won Gold Gloves in 1995 and 1996 for the
California Angels, down the coast in Anaheim, and is now showing
Northern California why. The new third baseman, Mark Lewis, who
has the unenviable task of attempting to replace Williams, has
been solid. San Francisco has been catching by committee, with
three players sharing the job, and its rightfielder, Glenallen
Hill, has a nice arm, though he still hasn't learned Candlestick
Park's--3Com, if you must--odd air currents. The leftfielder,
Bonds, has a deserved reputation for catching baseballs mortal
men cannot, and the new centerfielder, Darryl Hamilton, expected
back from a dislocated right thumb in the next week or two, is
one of the most reliable outfielders in the game. A nice
defensive squad.

Many of the pitchers have something to prove to former
employers. Take Roa. From 1989 through last season he had a
remarkably successful minor league career, running up a 78-41
record while pitching in the organizations of the Indians, the
Mets and the Atlanta Braves, none of whom gave him a chance to
show his stuff in the big leagues. "I want to show," he said,
"that I'm not a player-to-be-named."

The fifth starter, lefthander Kirk Rueter, wants to demonstrate
to the Montreal Expos, who traded him to the Giants in the
middle of last season, that they missed the boat too. Rueter has
been working with pitching coach Dick Pole to find a comfortable
rhythm. "With Montreal, they were always trying to get me to
work more slowly," Rueter says. "If I wanted to throw curves,
they said, 'Well, don't get beat with it.' I was more worried
about how I looked than how I pitched. Here they say, 'Throw the
curve anytime you want to. Work as fast as you want.'"

The Giants are fortunate to have three pitching coaches. The
official one is the 46-year-old Pole, who has counseled Rueter
so well. The unofficial ones are the 61-year-old Perranoski and
the 35-year-old Gardner. Perranoski has been making a study of
pitching for nearly half a century. He stays out of Pole's way
but makes discreet observations from time to time. Gardner is
the oldest player on the roster. He is wise enough to know he'd
be "a third or fourth starter on another team" but secure enough
to recognize and encourage young talent. "There's a guy,"
Gardner says, pointing across the clubhouse in the direction of
Estes, "who can be a real ace for this team very soon."

Estes, who through Sunday had a record of 4-1, was a first-round
draft pick by Seattle in 1991, but after four years, all of
which Estes spent in the minors, the Mariners grew weary of his
petulance and dealt him to San Francisco. In his minor league
days, Estes acknowledges, he was not mature enough to handle an
umpire's wavering strike zone or a teammate's fielding blunders.
The trade was a wake-up call, a signal to grow up. "When you're
traded, you lose that sense of security," Estes says. "There are
a lot of hard-throwing lefties who never make it. I realized
that if I didn't start producing, I wouldn't be around very long."

There are other happy stories on the Giants' staff. Fernandez,
the former Cuban Olympic star, defected in July 1995, leaving
his family behind. His world was suddenly upside down. He had to
deal with a new language, new weather, new food. His family was
incommunicado, spied upon by the Cuban government and embroiled
in a living hell. Late last August, Fernandez's plan to get his
wife, daughter, stepson, brother and mother out of Cuba and to
the U.S., on a secret, middle-of-the-night flight and at a cost
estimated to have been $50,000, was realized. Only three weeks
earlier, Fernandez, well into his first season with San
Francisco, was struggling with a 4-12 record and a 5.56 earned
run average. His pitching has been exemplary ever since.

Fernandez, who at week's end was 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA, has
received help from the bullpen, as have all the other starters.
Through Sunday, Doug Henry, a journeyman righthanded reliever,
had faced lefthanded hitters 21 times, giving up only one hit.
Southpaw Jim Poole had allowed a mere two earned runs in 13
appearances. Beck already had amassed 11 saves.

Who knows? The Giants may be an unlikely but bona fide team. Of
course, they could be vastly improved--play better than .500
baseball--and still finish last in their division, given the
strength of the Dodgers, the Padres and the Rockies. So far San
Francisco has accomplished what it has with anemic hitting. At
week's end the Giants were batting .236 and had hit just 19 home
runs. Bonds looked as if he was just starting to find his
stroke; for the year he had only four homers, 13 runs batted in
and a .262 batting average. Snow's numbers were still wintry
too: no homers, seven RBIs, .237.

On Sunday morning life was stirring early in the Giants'
clubhouse, the way it does on serious teams. The clock had not
yet chimed eight times, and there was Beck, at the CD player,
going country. Coaches were walking the floor in stocking feet.
Before long, Baker arrived. "You don't worry about a bump on the
road in this game," he said. "If you do, then what happens when
you hit a pothole?"

That afternoon his club went out and defeated the Reds 2-1. The
Giants were 18-10. It was an important win; three straight
losses to Cincinnati would have been a pothole. For San
Francisco, 134 games remained. Before the season is over, there
will be bumps, there will be potholes. And maybe even a major
surprise, too.

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Bill Mueller and the Giants didn't exactly run by the Reds, losing two of three at home last weekend. [Bill Mueller skiding into base in game] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Beck is relieved the Giants' defense has been bolstered and their roster upheaval has apparently ended. [Rod Beck pitching in game] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Lewis has capably handled the task of replacing Williams at third but looked shaky in a stint at second. [Mark Lewis in game]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)