February 18, 2008
If the Giants really are going to be a speed team in 2008, they hired the right zealot to take charge of their baserunning.
When he played, new first-base and running coach Roberto Kelly stole 235 bases for eight big-league teams. Last year, as manager of the Giants' low Single-A team in Augusta, Ga., he all but strapped firecrackers to the shoes of his players and lit the fuses.
Kelly's GreenJackets attempted 297 steals in 150 games and succeeded 212 times. Opposing catchers must have had night sweats while lying in bed thinking about Augusta.
Shortstop Brian Bocock, who briefly played for Kelly, said the skipper had one rule: No stealing when the team was ahead or behind by five runs or more.
"Other than that," Bocock said, "whenever you want, take off."
Shortstop Emmanuel Burris, who led Augusta with 51 thefts, said, "I thought I stole a lot, but he pushed me to steal more."
That is the "When in doubt, run" attitude that Kelly plans to impart to the Giants this spring as they make the transition from power ball to little ball. They had a decent head start in 2007, when they ranked fourth in the National League with 119 steals. Moreover, the top third of the lineup can take off now without fear of running the Giants out of a Barry Bonds inning and incurring the wrath of homer-drunk fans.
Stealing is not the only goal, but also scoring from second on singles and taking the extra base whenever possible - not exactly a hallmark of recent San Francisco baseball.
Kelly wants the Giants to be smart and aggressive on the bases, and he means everybody. He worked with the pitchers Sunday and told them, "Once you guys get on base, you become baserunners. That doesn't mean you're going to try to be crazy out there, but once you get on base, don't use the excuse that 'I'm a pitcher and I'm not supposed to run the bases well.'
"Speed is exciting. We're going to have to use it as much as we can. We're going to be more aggressive on the bases. The guys who didn't run as much or steal as much and know they can steal, they're going to be asked to steal more and get the offense going."
Not that the Giants are rife with speed demons. None of the expected starters, besides leadoff platoon mates Dave Roberts and Rajai Davis, is a real burner. For the first time in recent memory, though, most San Francisco players are fast enough to make a difference on the bases.
Omar Vizquel, Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand, Ray Durham, Kevin Frandsen and even big Daniel Ortmeier can run. Catcher Bengie Molina obviously gums up the works from the cleanup spot, but he is such a good contact hitter, even he can aid the cause by swinging effectively on hit-and-run plays.
"When you have a bunch of guys who can steal, not just one or two guys, it puts a lot of pressure on the pitcher and the coaches on the other side," said Giants special assistant Felipe Alou, who had a lot of speed at his disposal when he managed the Montreal Expos.
This year, manager Bruce Bochy plans to give most of his players a standing green light. They can go unless he gives the signal to stay put.
Players like that. Rowand loves it.
Last year in Philadelphia, he lost his green light when he got caught stealing in a situation that his manager, Charlie Manuel, thought was ill-considered. Rowand has talked to Bochy and has been assured that in most cases, if he wants to go, he can.
Rowand's career high in steals is 17, but he predicted he could swipe 25 easily if he runs consistently.
If the Giants hit well enough to get on consistently, the basepath could be a fun place in 2008, maybe not Ruben Rivera fun, but fun nonetheless. Incumbent third-base coach Tim Flannery is a walking windmill, and Kelly, a big-league coach for the first time, at 43, also likes to push, push, push.
"Obviously, our team is going to change," Kelly said. "We're not going to be a home-run-hitting ballclub. We're going to have to be a team that does the little things, that runs and gets guys over, and I think baserunning is going to be a big part of our success this year."