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Hail to San Ramon Valley

Cool moment out here at The Big Phone. Nate Schierholtz, the pride of San Ramon Valley High School (well, one of them), just rolled a “groundball with eyes” into right field for his first major-league hit, and received a very nice ovation from the modest crowd. He’ll always remember that it came against A.J. Burnett.

Schierholtz’s presence in the Giants’ lineup raises an interesting question, because he was a last-minute replacement Randy Winn (strained rib cage), who also is a product of SRV. Have there been any other products from the same high school as members of the same major-league roster at the same time?

Can’t imagine there’ve been many, if any at all. The closest thing I can think of off the top of my head are the Encinal High School tandem of Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis, but of course, they aren’t teammates. Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart were teammates, but each went to separate high schools, Henderson to Oakland Tech and Stewart to St. Elizabeth.

Safe to say Rick Steen, the longtime SRV coach, deserves mention in any discussion of the best Bay ARea baseball coaches ever.

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Pitching coach supreme

Nice to see that beat writer Joe Stiglich devoted some space this morning to Curt Young, the A’s pitching coach who seems to have King Midas’ touch. You could argue that Young is the most valuable member of this team. A team missing projected starters Esteban Loaiza and Rich Harden and without its two best relievers, Huston Street and Justin Duchscherer, nonetheless leads the American League with a 3.11 ERA.

The recognition is long overdue. Young is quiet, humble and unassuming, the result of his Midwest upbringing, and he stepped into a difficult situation when he replaced Rick Peterson, the former A’s pitching coach who was never shy about advancing his theories. Young was handed a terrific staff in 2004, because Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito all were in the fold. But that can be rough when you’re new, because anything less than the expected results is immediately going to be assumed to be the fault of the new guy.

Well, that’s precisely what happened. Mulder had a terrible late-season fade in Young’s first season (and to this day, never really has regained his top-notch form), and that put some heat on the former A’s left-hander, because the unfair assumption was that Peterson would’ve been able to fix Mulder’s problem.

Of course, Young never let on that he felt any pressure and kept doing his thing. Three years later, he belongs in any discussion involving the game’s best pitching coaches.

In my opinion, it’s sweet justice, too. Young was a talented lefty for those dynamic A’s teams in the late 80′s, and in 1987 — Tony La Russa’s first full season as the team’s manager, and the year that the A’s went from dregs to players in the AL West — Young might’ve been the best left-hander in the game for a three-month stretch. But he hurt his arm in a late June start at Chicago against the White Sox and really was never the same after that. He had spurts of excellence, and he was dynamite in the second half of 1988, but he was never what he was in that first half of 1987.

It looks like his ultimate legacy for the A’s will be in his work as the pitching coach. After all, had you had been told that Chad Gaudin, Joe Kennedy and Lenny DiNardo would be three-fifths of the rotation in late June, you probably would’ve said the A’s would be in last place. And I probably would’ve believed you.

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Broom time

Not surprisingly, the A’s closed out a sweep of the Giants 2-0 on Sunday afternoon. The Giants are so lifeless offensively that they couldn’t do a thing against Lenny DiNardo. DiNardo loaded the bases in the second inning with one out, but as usual the Giants couldn’t score. They left the bases juiced four times in the series.

Some quick thoughts:

Santiago Casilla looks like he could be a god-send to the A’s bullpen. He rolled through two more scoreless innings, and that’s now seven scoreless for him since his recall from Triple-A Sacramento. He has fastball command now and his slider has been biting. Very impressive.

If I’m Matt Cain, I’m on the verge of going Armando very shortly. He has only two wins to show for his 3.31 ERA.

Barry Bonds is missing cookies. I saw at least three pitches during the series that he used to crush without missing a beat, and he rolled over on two of them and fouled another one off.

Kevin Frandsen had some awful at-bats. Looks like he’s gripping the bat so tight he wants to break it. This is what happens when you don’t commit to young guys. The way the Giants have handled this kid has not helped him.

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The Bay Bridge finale

Got out here early this morning for the season finale of the Bay Bridge series, and have to say, there are fewer things more peaceful than looking out over the Big Phone on a quiet morning. At any rate, I fully expect the A’s to complete a sweep today, even though the pitching match-up _ Lenny DiNardo vs. Matt Cain _ would seem to favor the Giants. But the San Franciscans are showing as much life as my backyard lawn these days.

Which, as one of my colleagues just brought up, should not be causing all that much fuss, because isn’t this what we expected from the Giants back in February? Barry Bonds gave us a nice diversion for the first month of the season, but he’s clearly wearing down physically (just check out his HR and RBI pace). And when he doesn’t hit, the Giants don’t score. And when teams don’t score, they look terrible. So it is with the Giants.

Look, as I blogged earlier, their eight-game winning streak early on this season was a mirage, just as their 2-7 start was not real indicative earlier.
I may have missed the boat on the latter assessment. Since the eight-game winning streak ended, manager Bruce Bochy’s club is 16-23. Simply put, this is going to be a long summer.

On the other side, interesting to see the quotes from Bobby Crosby regarding Dan Haren. Led me to wonder about other sensational first halves in A’s history. Vida Blue immediately jumps to mind with his 17-win first half in 1971 (he was a rookie that year). Dave Stewart had a phenomenal first-half run in 1988 that started with eight wins in his first eight starts. Haren’s current run, in my opinion, doesn’t quite measure up to those, but it’s awfully close. Unless he completely falls on his face in his next five starts, how does he not get the ball for the All-Star Game?

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Too Giant a hole

Put a fork in the Giants. They’re done. Two straight losses in Arizona — at least one of which a contending team wins — has put them eight back of both the Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres in the National League West, and this club is simply too old, too tired and too flawed to make up that much distance against two clubs.

The wild-card you say? Nice thought, but the Giants are also 6 1/2 back of the Dodgers, who are second in that race. Bottom line is that the NL West is a top-heavy division with the Padres, Diamondbacks and Dodgers clearly better than the Rockies and Giants. Team Barry will have a difficult enough time making up ground on Colorado, much less making a move on the top three.

This road trip has showcased all the Giants shortcomings. They’ve won just three times in eight games, even though they have led late in five of them. If it’s not the bullpen one night, it’s the offense the next. Many times it’s a combo of both. And the result is that the Giants are wasting one of the deepest rotations the franchise has ever had. But even the starters’ are getting into the act. Tim Lincecum couldn’t protect two leads in Philadelphia, and Matt Cain has been having his troubles recently.

And new manager Bruce Bochy shouldn’t be completely exonerated from blame, either. Caught the end of last night’s loss. Bochy had Barry Bonds and Bengie Molina on the bench in the ninth. He pinch-hit Bonds to start the inning, and got one of his desired results when Bonds walked. But rather than try to sacrifice Dan Ortmeier (who had pinch-run for Bonds) to second, Bochy then used his best bullet in Molina, who struck out. Kevin Frandsen then pinch-hit and flew out. One question, why now use Frandsen to get Ortmeier to second, then use Molina, who is hitting .391 with runners in scoring position?

Randy Winn’s strike out ended the game, but by then, the final result seemed inevitable. I know that some folks will say you can’t play small ball and go for a tie on the road, but with this pop-gun offense, you have to generate runs at any opportunity.

Then again, lamenting the ninth is like lobbying for a band-aid to be put on a gaping wound. The bottom line is that this is simply a mediocre team, maybe good enough to win 83 games if everything goes right. That won’t get them within sniffing distance of any of the three teams ahead of them.

The consolation is that the Giants get six picks among the first 51 in today’s draft. That should give the lunatic fringe plenty of ammo in the years ahead. Remember, Brian Sabean doesn’t exactly have a shining track record when it comes to drafting hitters, and the Giants organization sure could use some.

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Time to go cyclin’

Last night was like very old times for me. I sat on the couch watching the A’s-Red Sox go into extra-innings, and when Mark Ellis batted twice with a chance to get the cycle, I found myself yelling at the TV. First, I was ticked that his sharp grounder to third in the eighth that Kevin Youkilis snagged was ruled a fielder’s choice and error. Then I found myself cheering loudly and clapping when he blooped a broken-bat single into center in the 11th.

You see, Mark Ellis is one of the truly good guys in this game, and you can’t help but love to see great things happen to good guys. This was the sixth cycle in A’s history, and the second ever at the Coliseum, and believe me, you couldn’t select a candidate who deserved it more.

First and foremost, Ellis is a lunch-pail guy. Comes to work everyday. Nothing flashy. Nothing spectacular. Just does everything right. He’s a guy who will immediately make any team better, but not one you’re going to notice right away. I get the feeling that Mark Ellis could care less about whether he ever shows up on SportsCenter. What he cares about is doing whatever is necessary to win that night, and if you need somebody to do something fundamentally right to aid that cause, you won’t find anybody better than him.

Second of all, he’s a terrific guy. He hails from South Dakota, and has the quiet humility that you often find from people who come from that area. Mark Ellis is the kind of guy who will ask a visitor about his family, about his interests. In the world of professional baseball, this makes him as rare as a complete game.

I was especially looking forward to chatting with him tonight about the birth of his first child, because being a father myself, I understand the high he’s experiencing. But I never combined that by hitting for a cycle, so I can’t wait to find out what must be going through his mind. My guess is that he’ll already be focusing on the task at hand, namely tonight’s game against the Red Sox. Baseball offers precious little time to reflect. That’s best left to those of us who watch, and it was great for a night, to be whisked back into a fan.

For that, Mark Ellis, thank you.

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Sabean’s motivation

OK Giants fans. Now that you’ve had the weekend to rid yourselves of the hangovers incurred from the “Armando is gone,” celebrations, ask yourself this: Do you really want a general manager who makes decisions based on the outcry of the fans and media?

To read between the lines, it sure sounded like the blind spot Giants GM Brian Sabean seemed to have for Benitez remained until the moment he pulled the trigger and got rid of him. That he went out of his way not to call Benitez a scapegoat for a team that is closer to last place than it is to first indicated to me that given his druthers, he would not have chosen to pay $4.7 million to have Benitez pitch for the Florida Marlins.

It was also interesting to hear Sabean call out some of the team’s older players for not being on the field enough — players that Sabean brought on board, by the way. Sabean surely had to be smart enough to know that fielding another team heavy in 30-something’s would bring with it the various dings and ailments that plague older clubs, so he can’t be surprised that Ray Durham and Ryan Klesko, among others, have had to sit out occasional contests. He should also be pleasantly pleased that the Giants have left the disabled list mostly unoccupied.

His comments strike me, rather, as the frustrations of a man who wanted to build his club one way, and was told by upper management that it would be built another. Sabean really doesn’t have to toe the company line anymore, because owner Peter Magowan already has put him on notice that another lousy season won’t be tolerated. And while the Giants aren’t lousy, they clearly don’t seem to be in the same class with the Dodgers, Diamondbacks or Padres in their division. So if Sabean has calculated that he’s likely gone at the end of the season, he can air his true feelings, ramifications be darned.

Just one theory anyway.

Other thoughts:

— The A’s and Giants have evolved into essentially the same team. Great starting pitching combined with a mostly stagnant offense and lousy relief.

— Does anybody besides me suspect that A’s reliever Kiko Calero is having physical issues? His slider no longer dives and most of his pitches are at chest level. Calero has failed to retire a hitter in two of his past four appearances, and his inconsistency has been a killer.

— The Yankees aren’t quite dead and buried yet. But check back in three weeks. They have the White Sox for four in Chicago, followed by interleague slates vs. the Pirates, Diamondbacks, Mets, Giants, Rockies and Giants, and we’ll know a lot more after those are completed.

— Looks like the biggest prize at the trade deadline may well be Cubs starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano, because there’s no way Chicago can keep him at this point. If I’m Chicago, I try to pawn him off to the Dodgers or Padres and try to acquire one of their stud young relievers, say a Heath Bell, or Jonathan Broxton.