Catcher's Interference: Intangibles of the Masters

Blinding fastballs, plunging curves and why the Giants will need more to close a season as World Series champions.

OAKLAND - On Saturday morning, I grabbed my hat and glove, packed my cooler, picked up a dozen Krispy Kremes and headed to Network Associates Coliseum. No, the Giants weren't playing an early inter-league game. It was one of those days that I decided I had to see what true masters really look like… and see exactly that one thing the Giants sorely need should they make another run in October.

Roger Clemens. Barry Zito. I had to see these guys with my own two eyes. While Saturday's game won't go down in the history books as one of the classics, they still managed to astound me and illustrate what the Giants will need to put on the mound in Game 1 of any post-season series. In a word, they'll need those ever-elusive intangibles.

Clemens still showed hitters that 40 years of age has nothing to do with a 94 MPH fastball that can occasionally whistle by their ear holes. Zito's curve starts at midnight and rudely awakens hitters at 6:00 AM. I simply can't recall watching a more devastating curve in person.

It goes without saying that they have great stuff. But what sets these two apart is the confidence in their stuff. When Clemens takes the mound, you can practically see the black cap and helmet and hear the mechanized breathing. The guy is Darth Vader, plain and simple. Like Vader, he's got the best stuff around and the surliest attitude to match. With two outs in the third, he gave up a two out double to Chris Singleton. Some pitchers would have walked the next hitter with a base open and two out. Well, Clemens was on the same page. Sort of. The next batter, Mark Johnson, is a lefty and the batter after him, Mark Ellis, is a righty.

Therefore, Clemens played the statistics by putting Johnson on first… by drilling him on his shoulder blade. Why waste four pitches?! The reason is that Clemens knows he can end any threat and he did just that by striking out Mark Ellis with an 89 mph split-finger. Suffice to say, you can't teach that. We'll mark that intangible as Exhibit A.

Zito is Luke to Clemens' Vader. He showed those flashes that vaulted him to A-list status and a Cy Young Award in 2002 early and often. Only in the middle innings did he show that he'd been taught well but was not a Jedi yet at the hands of the evil empire that is the Yankees. However, in the second inning, Zito's good morning-good afternoon- goodnight dispatch of Erick Almonte demonstrated why he's nothing more than a warm body to fill Derek Jeter's position. When the count was 0-1, the umpire would have done Almonte a favor by patting the young lad on the shoulder and saying, "Son, let me do you a favor: Just sit down right now." But there was Zito's best pitch thrown three consecutive times. Here it is, rook. Hit me. Oh, try it again. Whoops, here ya go a third time. Your honor, we'll submit this as Exhibit B.

To simply say that it's easy for me to proclaim that all pitchers should have the ability of Zito and Clemens is to miss my point. Did you see John Lackey in Game 7 last October? How about El Duque? Remember Andy Pettitte prior to the 2001 postseason? These are pitchers who don't exactly have a Hall-of-Famer arsenal like Clemens and probably Zito. What they do share is that one thing that made them unhittable: They itched for pressure. They didn't care if 1 billion people watched them or 1. Their stuff was that much better with the confidence they put behind it. And even though the game I watched in sunny Oakland last Saturday was in May, Clemens and Zito both take that same ferocity into every game they pitch whether its April, May or October.

The Giants organization needs to take note of the demeanor displayed by the likes of demi-gods, such as Clemens and Zito, as well as the recent post-season performances of Lackey, Pettitte and Hernandez. Why? Simple, really. The Giants' history of running out their version of a "stopper" to the mound in huge games is a sorry one. In 2002, Livan Hernandez was the centerpiece of the World Series rotation. After getting shellacked in Game 3, he all but begged to be thrown out of Game 7 as his pitches either ended out of the strike zone or on the meaty section of Garret Anderson's bat. In 1997 and 2000, Shawn Estes showed the world that great stuff is meaningless when coupled with stage fright against Florida and the inability to slide into second base versus the Mets. I'll do Giants fans a favor by just glossing over the Solomon Torres and Atlee Hammaker debacles of '93 and '87. Just the names Torres and Hammaker say it all, don't they?

Who, then, on this current roster has the stuff and guts of Dave Stewart to be the ace who can ensure a celebratory dogpile on the mound? Their best candidate is Jason Schmidt, but his approach needs a bit more seasoning. The Giants will need more of the Schmidt who pitched in Game 2 of the NLCS and less of the one who pitched in Game 5 of the World Series. His Schilling-like talent needs to be matched with a Pettitte-like approach.

When you observe a Clemens and Zito, you realize just how special these two are. It's one thing to watch the pure ability and its entirely another to see the raw talent equaled by a thorough lack of fear. Even more amazing is that they get the job done with wholly different attitudes but with equal resolve. Clemens is the intimidator who throws searing lasers as his out pitch. Zito relies on patience well beyond his years and his curve and change-up to keep hitters shaking their heads. These guys put everything into their gaze from the mound and the heat on their pitches. They don't have to say a word, unlike jokers such as Raul "I Only Play During Contract Years" Mondesi who have to write, "El Cañon" on their throwing arms. Fortunately, the Giants don't have an El Cañon-type player distracting them. But to reverse their Game 6 jinx, they'll need that steely gaze and paralysis-inducing pitching.

So break out the Rorschach cards. Do what you have to do, Brian Sabean, but be sure your ace is up to the challenge. Or go get one who is.

Keith Larson writes for SFDugout.com because he's lived and died with the Giants since 1972. He welcomes all words of praise and insult at keith49ers@yahoo.com, but mentioning anything having to do with Game 6 is to be done with extreme caution.


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