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Working the ‘Pen

Said on Monday that one of my initial impressions from the first week of the season was that the A’s bullpen will be nasty this season. And despite the events of Wednesday, I still believe it.

That said, I do think it’s worth watching how new manager Bob Geren uses the bullpen, especially early. Geren took Joe Kennedy out after five innings and 84 pitches, and since that wasn’t addressed in the postgame quotes, I assume it was a case of walking away while you’re ahead. Kennedy had been terrible all spring and didn’t shine in his first regular-season start. So perhaps Geren just felt that after five innings of decent ball, he’d play his best card.

Can’t say I’d argue with that strategy, especially with an off-day awaiting. Still, Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero already have been used in half of the A’s 10 games this season, and that’s a pace that could lead to some tired arms at some point.

Not that I’m declaring Bob Geren the second coming of Felipe Alou just yet. Far too early for that. But his heavy use of the bullpen is definitely a trend to watch.

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The Home Run King

One of the great joys of watching my 4 1/2-year-old son grow up is to see how he reacts when he’s exposed to some of the same things I experienced as a kid. As such, the complete Brady Bunch collection often is missing from my DVD shelf. My son loves it, and gets it, so several hours a week, my wife and I are subjected to, “Here’s the story …”

I bring this up, because of recent comments made by Hank Aaron that are beginning to reveal clues as to how the baseball world will react if Barry Bonds moves past The Hammer on baseball’s all-time home-run list. In one of the classic early Brady episodes, Peter saves a little girl in a toy store. The ensuing commotion causes Peter to get a big head (no pun intended), and he throws himself a party in which nobody shows up.

Which is exactly what may happen on the night when Bonds gets No. 756. Not that there’s any guarantee that’ll happen, as Bonds himself hinted last night. He’s ahead of last season’s pace, but he’s not hitting home runs so regularly that Aaron’s mark is any immediate danger.

Anyway, Aaron said on ESPN’s “Cold Pizza” last week that he won’t attend the record-breaker, and he re-iterated those comments to Terrence Moore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Now, I suppose one could argue that Aaron should take the high road and do for Bonds what commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not do for Aaron in 1974. Kuhn didn’t attend Aaron’s 715th home run in Atlanta, because of what he called a previous engagement. The chase left Aaron tired and, some have said, bitter, because of the hate he had to endure along the way, and Kuhn’s absence was just one more slap in his face.

I’m not going to be that one, however. I like Aaron’s stance. Bonds has never lowered himself to care about what the media or the fans think of him, and as far as I’m concerned on that issue, more power to him. But he does care, deeply, about how the greats of the game view him, and Aaron’s absence implies a message _ intentional or not _ that Aaron does not approve of Bonds, or the methods Bonds may have used to aid his cause. Bonds says he doesn’t care, and he’s just arrogant enough to mean it. But make not mistake, not having Aaron there takes away from Bonds’ achievement, and no jury of reasonable men and women would argue differently.

It would be, in other words, a bit like putting up party streamers and dressing up in your best suit, only to find out nobody really wants to be around you in the first place.

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Opening Impressions

First week of the season is in the books. Here’s some early thoughts:

Barry Zito’s slow start is no surprise. Zito’s career numbers in April have never been real good. The good news is that he’s always had a way of rebounding. Could be much more difficult to do that with this Giants team, however.

— The Giants will scuffle for runs. Barry Bonds may be healthy right now, and Ray Durham looks great, but there are just too many holes in this lineup to expect runs regularly. Imagine this will take a toll on a starting staff that has a chance to be as good as any in the division.

— Durham is scuttling my projections that he’d be a flop. He looks quicker, and laterally, he’s moving great and playing terrific defense. Hitting behind Bonds will ensure good pitches, and plenty of RBI chances.

— The A’s, at least early, will go as far as their bullpen allows. The relievers’ effort on Sunday showed the impact they can have on a game. The question now is whether they can keep it up over six months, especially if their starting pitchers struggle to get past six innings consistently.

— To judge by the outcry on Robert Buan’s Extra Innings postgame show, fans are already growing impatient with Eric Chavez’s production. One word: Chill.

— Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Russell Martin is fast turning into one of the National League’s best catchers. Saw him live on Friday, and to see him gun out two base-stealers and block the plate and make a tag to prevent a run in a 2-1 win was the type of thing you expect from seasoned vets. Dodgers have themselves a keeper.

— Angels outfielder Garret Anderson must’ve sipped from the same fountain of youth as Ray Durham. Anderson resembles the guy who was a wrecking unit up until two years ago. Bad news for the rest of the AL West

The Yankees pitching stinks.

— Baseball’s insistence on opening the season in the East Coast is ridiculous. One suggestion, other than mandating West Coast stops in early April. Start the campaign around April 15th, and shorten the season to 154 games. It’ll never happen, of course, because of the gate that would be lost,

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The Dice Man

Guess all Daisuke Matsuzaka has to do now is prepare his Hall of Fame speech. Clearly, he’s the greatest pitcher of all time.

OK, that’s a bit much, not that you would know it by the reaction over his first start with the Boston Red Sox. To see the coverage on TV and in the press clippings, you’d think that baseball had just encountered the Messiah. The sheer grandiosity with which Matsuzaka’s first start was treated makes it seem as if no other pitcher has ever burst onto the scene with such nasty stuff.

Now, get me wrong. Matsuzaka is a special talent. I saw him in the World Baseball Classic, and like my reporing peers who also got a glimpse, figured Matsuzaka would be a sensational addition to the majors in 2007. I wouldn’t be shocked if he wins 20 right out of the gate. And whether his impact influences the way American pitchers are treated (and taught) will be a great sub-plot to watch for years.

But c’mon people, it’s only one game. And last I checked, the team he mesmerized on Thursday closely resembled the same one that has lost at least 100 games three years running. In short, this was a game Matsuzaka should have dominated. So let’s not dub him Cy Young just yet.

Better to wait how he treats the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers. Now, there are three lineups that can rake. And better to wait until a lineup can face him in weather not better suited for cuddling in front of a fire. And even better to see how what he does come July and August and September when a full season of pitching on four days rest starts to make itself felt (in Japan, starters pitch every six days and Monday’s are always an off-day).

One other thing. Hideo Nomo was annointed the next great thing after he debuted for the Dodgers against the Giants in 1995, and that didn’t exactly come to pass.

Now don’t get me wrong, Matsuzaka has more tools than Nomo ever did. He throw harder, with more consistency and with more pitch-selection than Nomo ever did. But take his opening effort for what it was worth. It was impressive. It does not make him a legend.

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The SoCal’s

Let’s get one thing straight. No series in April, no matter what the circumstances, can ever be called huge. There’s just too many games left to play, and too many variables yet to be determined that can change the dynamic of a season.

That said, the A’s first series of the season against the Angels is not a small one, either, and ditto, the Giants’ first glimpse at the Dodgers.

The A’s open a four-game series vs. the Halos tonight, and if they’re not careful, they could be staring at a decent-sized hole right out of the gate. The Angels looked terrific in sweeping the Texas Rangers and wins in three of four this weekend at Angel Stadium would put the A’s four games behind the eight-ball before they’ve even blinked. Not that four games is insurmountable, but it would no doubt start all of the annual questions about a slow start.

The A’s aren’t in real good shape going in, either. Chad Gaudin, never real impressive as a starter during his Toronto days, is the first-game starter, and he’s followed by Joe Kennedy, whose spring needs no recap. Make no mistake, the A’s rotation is shaky at this point. The Angels rotation is, too, but they’re going to get Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver back soon. Once that happens, look out. Thus, it behooves the A’s to stay as close as they can early in the season.

The Giants still have one game left vs. the Padres, but most of the concerns surrounding this team have come to fruition in the first two games. Save for Barry Bonds, they really haven’t hit, and the bullpen hasn’t covered itself in glory. They get the Dodgers this weekend, and more than just bragging rights in the rivalry is at stake. Los Angeles was the chic pick in the National League this year, and it’ll be an early chance for the Giants to show how they stack up. Plus, Barry Zito gets to dip his toe into the rivalry for the first time, and show Giants fans that, yes, he can last longer than five innings in high-stakes contests.

Should make for some interesting viewing.

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It’s over

Barry Bonds just lifted a deep but lazy fly ball to left field and Jose Cruz Jr., hauled it in a couple of steps onto the warning track. And with that, the sound of car keys being pulled from their pockets could be he heard throughout the stadium. A mass exodus was underway, and why not? Three Giants outs later, San Diego had a 7-0 rout on Opening Day, and the whole place has the look and feel of your kitchen the night after you’ve thrown a party.

Here’s what the Giants have shown us on Opening Day:

— Barry Zito showing us both Barry the Good (32 pitches through three and only one run allowed), and Barry the Bad (36 pitches, three runs in the fourth).

— A bullpen that leaves a lot to be desired. Kevin Correia, Jonathan Sanchez and Vinny Chulk all took turns making San Diego look like the most potent lineup in baseball. Sanchez and Chulk even hurled balls to the backstop.

— Barry Bonds singled, walked, grounded out, flew out, stole a base and was thrown out at home plate on an ill-advised attempt to score on an errant throw. In all, he stood on his feet a lot. Can’t be great for the knees.

So there it is. The A’s and Giants are dead even after a game, each team looking for its first run.

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The Stretch

First seventh-inning stretch of the season, and for all the freshness of Opening Day, it sures feels an awful lot like 2006. The Giants are down 4-0, and save for Ray Durham (of all people), they look worn and tired. And it’s only April.

The Padres added to their lead in the seventh when Jonathan Sanchez uncorked a pitch right out of “Major League,” to score Jose Cruz Jr. from third. Cruz smoked a triple into Triples Alley to start the inning against Kevin Correia, who replace Barry Zito after Barry the New pitched an anything-but-inspiring five innings, allowing three runs.

Still three innings to go to turn things around, but the first impression has not been a good one.

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Rough inning

Sometimes my powers for writing something just as the exact opposite happens is amazing. Perhaps I should write that I won’t win the next big lottery.

Anyway, Barry Zito’s fourth inning was not nearly as good as his first three. The Padres scored twice, aided in large part by a butcher job by third baseman Pedro Feliz on a potential double-play grounder by Khalil Greene. But Zito didn’t help himself, either, walking Mike Cameron to start the inning and issuing a free pass to Jose Cruz Jr., with the bases loaded.

In all, he threw 37 pitches in the fourth, five more than it took for him to get through the first three. Those familiar with the A’s have seen that before.

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Barry Zito’s debut

Well, through three innings it’s already been a better Opening Day experience for Barry Zito than he had last season. Zito trails 1-0, courtesy a one-out double by Brian Giles and a two-out single by Adrian Gonzalez in the first inning. But he’s around the plate, his curveball has snap, and he’s minimizing his pitch count (32).

Amazing what can happen when you don’t face a juggernaut. In 2006, Zito lasted just four outs and gave up seven runs in a 15-2 beatdown by the Yankees. That was his only Opening Day start for the A’s, and it gets back to the point that no, the opener doesn’t always set a tone for the whole season.

Then again, check back in July to see how Zito is swinging it. He struck out in his first at-bat against Jake Peavy and looked awful doing it. The guess here is that he doesn’t get his first major-league hit until May, at the earliest.

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Nice touch

Time for some honesty. As an objective observer of two organizations, I’d argue that the A’s operate their ship infinitely better than do the Giants. They certainly get more bang for their buck, and while you can argue they should spend more money, the truth is that they are operated like a business, and the bottom line shows they are a very successful one.

That said, the Giants own the A’s when it comes to honoring their past. The Giants held a lengthy pregame ceremony before the home opener today, introducing their former All-Stars from San Francisco past. Everybody from a who’s-who list of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal to a “Oh, yeah, him,” group of Ed Whitson, Greg Minton and Darrell Evans.

One thing that stood out: Will Clark’s belt line. It’s considerably smaller than it looked several months ago, but it still gives Kevin Mitchell a run for its money. They superimposed a picture of The Thrill in his prime on the big-screen scoreboard, and it was a reminder that few things in this game were as sweet as seeing Will at war with the pitcher.

Atlee Hammaker was also introduced. He still looks young enough to take the hill. Fortunately, Giants fans, that won’t be happening anytime soon.