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Giants Rule, 49ers Drool…And BROOKS CONRAD~!

Sports - by - October 11, 2010 - 00:31 UTC - Be first to Comment!

It’s nice to be back on the blogging side of things as both Pete and I have been having some big time events happening in our lives (Pete’s job and other aspirations, my move back to California from Florida) and with so many great things happening (and…well, the Niners), it’s time for us to get back to writing about it. So tonight, I get to writing on what has been a fantastically exciting NLDS and an equally horrifying 49ers season.

Forget Torture…This Is Beyond Torture

“Torture” has been the modus operandi for the San Francisco Giants this year: A team that knows its strength (a pitching staff that top to bottom is the best in baseball) and hopes that its weaknesses (everything else) doesn’t show through to much. There are many things that the team could do well, but normally, it is offset by any numerous examples of ineptitude (a penchant for double plays, defensive lapses and a general offense weakness being the main culprits). But sometimes, the team foregos all their weaknesses and puts together a complete game that focuses on tough pitching, timely hitting, and making the right plays afield.

You know, the way a good team would normally play.

When they made the playoffs, it was obvious that the Giants had the ability to hang with any team solely because of their starting pitching. Their front three of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez were going to be the key to this team’s success in their first ever postseason as a unit. From there, they would hope that the team could come through with just enough offense to support the staff and win tight games with a solid bullpen. That is quite a tough thing to do over a 162 game period, but luckily, in the playoffs, strategy like that pays off due to a number of different factors and variables.

For starters, one has to realize that no matter what a player does in the regular season, trying to use that to project how he does in the playoffs is useless. When talking about the playoffs, you’re talking about a small sample size, meaning that over any small number of games, any player can be a superstar thanks to a hot streak or be a goat thanks to a cold streak. For example, Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena had a subpar season, having the lowest batting average amongst eligible players (.196) and playing somewhat roughly at first base, at least lower than his normally good defense of past years. In the playoffs, he’s 4-for-10 with three extra base hits and four walks for an OPS of 1.538. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Jason Heyward, who had one of the best seasons for a 20-year-old in MLB history, is hitless in three games during the NLDS.

So does that mean Pena is a superstar and Heyward is a bust? Not necessarily. Any player can go into a cold streak at any time and any player can go into a hot streak at any time. The perception of how good a player is comes from looking at a larger body of work, like the regular season, and using his stats to judge how good he is. Pena had a terrible year, but looking back at what he did previously, seeing him come through like this shouldn’t be unexpected. He looks to be locked in at the plate considering he’s reached in 8 of 14 plate appearances, while for Heyward, he seems to be pressing and not allowing his natural talents to shine through. The problem for Heyward is that while in the regular season, he could bounce back from a down period and turn back into the player he normally is, he might not have that luxury in the playoffs with the Braves on the brink of elimination.

In Michael Lewis’ seminal work Moneyball, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane was quoted as saying “My shit don’t work in the playoffs.” To a point, he’s right. While you build a team over the 162-game regular season to get to the playoffs, playoff series being so short in length with so many variables in play (namely a higher level in competition) lead to numerous anomalies that can’t be accounted for, and therefore, you see things like the Twins getting swept in three straight postseason series against the Yankees and the craziness of the NLDS series between San Francisco and Atlanta.

Game 1 was all about Tim Lincecum pitching the game of his life against a team that had no answer for him. Game 2 was all about the Braves taking advantage of the situations presented to them by a rusty bullpen to steal a game and tie the series. Game 3? Well, Game 3 was about how mistakes become magnified in the playoffs. And unfortunately for Atlanta, the big mistakes all involved one player.

Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad had an all-time bad defensive game for the postseason. His first error in the first inning allowed the Giants to have two runners on with the heart of their line-up coming to the plate. The Giants didn’t capitalize on the error, but the tone was set for a bad day by Conrad. In the third inning, Mike Fontenot took advantage of his first start of the series and drove a triple to right-center field off the glove of Heyward, which led to the next Conrad error, a pop fly that flicked off his glove in shallow right field, allowing Fontenot to score the game’s first run. Conrad had gone a little bit deeper on the ball than he probably should have, but likely did it due to Heyward being shaken up on the Fontenot triple, a play where he crashed into the wall. Conrad did a bit too much, and unfortunately, that led to the game’s first run.

From there, the Giants rode Jonathan Sanchez’s left arm to a fantastic start, but things got chippy in the 8th inning, where a single by Alex Gonzalez led to one of the most interesting stretches of the series so far. Conrad had a big chance to negate his earlier errors in a sacrifice attempt to move Gonzalez over, but even then, Conrad couldn’t come through, popping up instead to the chagrin of the sold out crowd at the Ted. From there, the managerial mind games began. As a pinch hitter, Bobby Cox sent up Troy Glaus, trying to play the platoon split advantage. At 105 pitches, Bruce Bochy believed that putting Sanchez in that situation against Glaus might turn out to be a bad idea. So he went to Sergio Romo, he of the 2 run barrage in the 8th inning in Game 2 that helped lead to Atlanta’s win.

But, that is where the true ideals of managing comes through: Cox made the move knowing that he had a Plan B if Bochy showed his hand. So in bringing in the right-hander Romo, Cox pulled back Glaus and brought up Eric Hinske, a left-handed power bat. From there, it played out like any other dream for a player in the postseason: With a 2-2 count, Hinske put a mighty swing on a hanging slider and pulled it just inside the foul pole down the right-field line, giving Atlanta its first lead of the game and putting them 3 outs away from taking the pivotal 2-1 lead in the series.

Oh, but how cruel the postseason ghosts can be. With closer Billy Wagner out for the rest of the series with a pulled oblique muscle, the Braves went to a host of relievers with the hope that they could shut the door. First, it was Craig Kimbrel, a hard throwing right-hander that was the first choice out of the pen to be the 9th inning guy for Cox. After getting a pop-up from Cody Ross, Bochy went with pinch-hitting stud Travis Isihikawa to combat Kimbrel. After working the count full, Ichi drew a walk, putting the tying run on. Kimbrel would bounce back and get Andres Torres on a questionable called third strike. From there, the game opened up.

Freddy Sanchez would come to the plate as the Giants last hope, and after a flail of a swing at the first pitch, a fastball at his eyes and outside, it wasn’t looking that good. From there, he established an at-bat that turned out to be a season-saver. Down 1-and-2 and looking for something to hit, he did what all good hitters do: Adjust to a breaking ball and aim for the middle of the field. One low slider later, Sanchez went right back up the box with a single, and he represented the go-ahead run.

With Aubrey Huff to the plate and a fastball obliterater, Cox went to Mike Dunn, a hard-throwing lefty to get to Huff. However, Huff isn’t a normal lefty who struggles against lefties, hitting nearly .300 against them during the regular season. He took a pitch over the outside corner and lifted it in front of Heyward in right, plating Ishikawa to tie the game at 2-2 and put both teams on edge. With Buster Posey to the plate, Cox decided to throw a righty against the rookie catcher, bringing in Peter Moylan. His plan was to get Posey to bounce into a force play. He did his job…but Brooks Conrad didn’t do his. Again.

The ball was hit hard enough that all he had to do was knock it down. He had to stay down on it. Instead, it went right through his legs, shot into center field, and allowed Sanchez to slide home with the go-ahead run. Atlanta had their chance in the bottom of the 9th inning, but Brian Wilson did well enough to hold off the middle of the Braves order, and after a groundout to Sanchez by Nate McClouth, the Giants had one of the most improbable wins in postseason history.

In a regular season game, someone having three errors turns out to be folly for bad play highlights. In the All-Star Game two years ago at Old Yankee Stadium, Dan Uggla had a horrible game and was hounded for his bad play. In the postseason, Conrad goes down as one of the game’s great saps thanks to a three error game under the brightest of lights.

Small sample sizes and variables aside, it turns out that luck is the biggest determining factor when it comes to the playoffs. You never know who will have a big day at the plate or have a bad game in the field. That’s what makes the playoffs so exciting: It’s the most entertaining crap shoot ever.

It’s Time To Park That Pride

Ah…the San Francisco 49ers. The pundits pick to win the NFC West in 2010 basically because they were thought to have sucked the worst.

And yet, here we sit on this day in October, and they are one of two winless teams in the NFL (NOBODY…circles those wagons like the Buffalo Bills, eh, Boomer?) at 0-5.

Those who are optimistic read into the fact that they could easily be 3-2 right now if a couple of bounces go their way and such, as close games against the Saints, Falcons and Eagles saw them lose their chance at victory in the waining moments in each.

Tonight’s game was the epitome of the Mike Singletary era, and it’s not so much because of any one player’s performance so much as it is an organization being drug through the mud by incompetence. Where rah rah and intensity have replaced what the new winners in the NFL have been doing slowly during the last decade.

Mike Singletary was brought on to coach a team that had been sadly marked by the incompetence of its head coach and general manager. Drafts from previous years were lauded for the talent brought in, yet that talent never surfaced to make a difference on the field, leading fans to get restless to the point where they would jump on every bit of goodness and wring it out until it was dry.

But on Sunday night, on a nationally televised game, America got a good look at a team that was unbalanced as could be. A team marked by a head coach as headstrong and tough as nails, only to waver under pressure and shy away from what should be their true identity.

That identity will never be realized as long as Mike Singletary is the coach of the 49ers.

The philosophy of Samurai Mike has always been one of toughness. His players will play hard on defense, they will pound you into submission with a power running game, and they will leave you gasping for air at the end of the game as they finish you off.

Yet the team that has been built by the 49ers front offense has not been built for that at all. They started their current offensive scheme with the drafting of Alex Smith, a quarterback out of Urban Meyer’s spread offense and destined to be a competent NFL starter because of his acumen, where scouts were impressed that he finished school early and wowed by his Wonderlic test at the NFL Combine.

This is where the combination of a coach’s philosophy and a player’s talent come to a head: Saying that a spread-style quarterback had no room in the NFL, the 49ers decided to make him more of a traditional quarterback, putting him under center and having him practice the normal dropbacks and progressions of a pro-style offense.

There was just one problem: Smith was never really that good at it.

He floundered to the point where J.T. O’Sullivan and Shaun Hill were given chances to succeed ahead of him, and was only put back in when there was nobody else to go to. Sure, there was growth under Norv Turner, but it was apparent that he would never be a solid NFL quarterback as soon as Turner left, namely because when it came right down to it, Smith was never efficient as a dropback passer. He couldn’t be a traditional quarterback the way the 49ers wanted him to be.

Except that the 49ers knew who they were drafting when they got him.

You don’t make a “project” quarterback a #1 overall pick. Michael Vick was picked #1 overall and had an offense basically created to his strengths. Dropback or shotgun, they made him mobile and allowed him to make choices pretty quickly. He was raw, he was unnerving at times, but Atlanta was successful with him as the quarterback because the team did what they could to make him comfortable in their offensive plans.

Smith, on the other hand, was to be turned into someone that he never was in the first place. That fundamental decision lessened his value as a player. From the shotgun, Smith was quick to his reads, was comfortable, and had no problem creating with his feet if need be. He was balanced as could be.

And on Sunday night, he showed that.

Down 24-10 and on the brink of being pulled from the game against Philadelphia, Alex Smith was asked to run a hurry-up style offense solely out of the shotgun. And for two scoring drives, he did not throw a single incompletion. At all. He hit his reads, he picked apart defenses, and he made all the right decisions. It was what he was at Utah when he was the most successful quarterback in school history.

Yet for Coach Singletary, the shotgun came only when necessary. The power run game had been snuffed out by the Eagles, who ranked 27th against the run in the entire NFL. It’s one thing to not do well against the run, but the 49ers were so predictable running the ball that the Eagles didn’t need to do much in stopping it. Just stand their ground and put the 49ers away.

The execution of his game plan to that point was sloppy. It was not what was suited to how his talent was assembled. He has an All-Pro tight end in Davis, a potential All-Pro in Michael Crabtree and a quarterback in Smith who works best out of the shotgun. Gore is a great running back, but to have such talent take a back seat to an antiquated power run game costs the 49ers chances to win.

When they ran the shotgun against New Orleans down the stretch, it made them dangerous. When they went to the conservative run game against Atlanta, it allowed the Falcons to come back. They did the exact same thing against Philadelphia, and then realized they needed to score quickly, so they switched to the shotgun. This allowed Smith, who hadn’t found any semblance of rhythm since the scripted opening drive, to get into familiar territory and utilize all of his weapons.

And the play of the 49ers late in the game begs the question: Why don’t the 49ers play primarily out of the shotgun?

The answer, unfortunately, is simple: Because that’s not what Mike Singletary wants.

He wants to establish the run. He wants to control the clock. He wants to pound the opponent into submission.

That run game? 30th in the NFL.

What Singletary doesn’t understand is his personnel. He has a quarterback that is most comfortable in the shotgun. He has a good set of young receivers. He has an offensive line that is improving in pass protection and has done well at picking up blitzes, especially with Gore.

The team is better out of the shotgun. It has proven that extensively this season and during Alex Smith’s time as the starter in 2009, as well. Remember, in the game that Smith started the second half that led to him becoming the starter full time, the team ran almost all of their offensive plays out of the shotgun against a team that wasn’t prepared for it and almost made a monumental comeback.

In today’s NFL, you must have balance. The 49ers don’t have it right now, mainly because they are an easily predictable offense. On first down through the first three quarters, the 49ers ran on 8 of 9 possible first downs and ended up playing in 2nd and long and 3rd and long situations due to their predictability.

That isn’t to say that being in the shotgun primarily solves all the 49ers problems. But doing so allows the quarterback to feel comfortable and gets him into situations that he is familiar with. Using the shotgun as a base, the 49ers can then switch their plans up in regards to the defense, and by doing so, can either pick apart a weak pass defense or throw in the run to keep it honest.

This makes everyone more efficient: Smith is more comfortable in the shotgun, Gore doesn’t get beat up so much running into 8-man boxes all the time, and Crabtree and Davis get targeted more often, which gets them into the game plan, spreads out the defense and opens up the playbook.

As long as Mike Singletary is the head coach of the team, that balance will not be found. He will continue to push his “tough” run game. He will continue to push his team on a fire and brimstone path that has no logical conclusion.

To be in the best position to win, the front office, the head coach and his coaching staff must have a unified vision of how to run the team. Don’t have the head coach talk about running the football when it’s obvious that the strength of the team lies within a shotgun-based offense.

Coach Singletary teaches his team to have faith in one another; to believe that through hard work and dedication, the team will succeed. But the only way a team succeeds is if the parts of the team are used correctly, especially the quarterback, who is the most important player on the team by far.

Right now, the 49ers are without an identity, without any semblance of balance and most important, without any wins.

The message is simple: Use your players correctly, put them in position where it allows them to be successful, and reap the rewards.

Coach Singletary isn’t doing it right now, and with the 49ers sitting at the bottom of one of the worst divisions in the history of the NFL, it’s time to find someone who will.

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