Phil Garner has a problem the next few nights. It's the question that has hung over most of the games the San Francisco Giants have played the last four years, the one that came into focus in the final week of the 2001 season:
Do you pitch to Barry Bonds or walk him?
Much hangs on the approach Garner chooses. The three-game series between the Houston Astros and Giants at SBC Park will be an important step in determining the winner of the wild-card chase in the National League.
The bet here is this: Garner will have his pitching staff go after Bonds in all but the most obvious intentional walk situations -- runners in scoring position, with one or two outs. But it's not much more than a guess.
Garner is, by nature, extremely aggressive. He inherited a team that had attempted 41 stolen bases in 88 games under Jimy Williams, and has had it try 63 steals in 61 games. The addition of Carlos Beltran does not explain why guys like Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio (even Jeff Bagwell) are running more under Garner than they did Williams.
The difference is Garner forces the action.
It's hard to see how Garner will do as Larry Dierker did back in the penultimate series in 2001, although you can argue that he should. Putting Bonds on base doesn't get you beat; pitching to him often does.
That's what Dierker was thinking when he stood by as his pitchers walked Bonds eight times in a three-game series even though he was on the verge of breaking Mark McGwire's single-season home run record. It is still a sore point with Dierker that even Houston fans booed when Astros pitchers exercised discretion in that series, which had meaning in two division races, along with Bonds' pursuit of the home run record.
After Dierker had been relieved of his managerial duties, he still defended his approach. It was proposed to him that, if winning was the only consideration, an opponent would be wise to intentionally walk Bonds every time he came to bat unless the bases were loaded, the score was tied and it was the bottom of the ninth, 10th, 11th, etc.
"You can support that idea statistically,'' Dierker said. "If you do the math, you're better off walking him than pitching to him ... I think over the course of time, you probably would be better off walking him every single time.''
If Bonds walked every plate appearances all season, he'd have a 1.000 on-base percentage and a zero slugging average. That's a 1.000 OPS, which creates fewer runs than Bonds' 1.378 OPS from 2001 or his 1.437 this season, when he's been the best hitter in the history of the game.
"Over a long course of time, the math would be borne out,'' Dierker said. "But in a three-game series, I don't think you can count on it.''
It's not very macho, either.
Yet Bonds is walking 3.7 times for every 10 that he comes to the plate this season, and one of every two walks is intentional. The Giants claim that the opponents who walk him make it easier for them to win, citing the number of runs they score in an inning when he walks. But nobody seems to hear Felipe Alou and his pitch-to-Barry campaign.
The care that is taken with Bonds these days is stunning considering how Tony La Russa browbeat opponents into pitching to McGwire in 1998. He was walked in only 13 of his final 71 plate appearances en route to his 70-homer season in 1998. His last intentional walk that season was by the Cubs' Steve Trachsel on Sept. 8.
In fact, neither McGwire nor Sammy Sosa were intentionally walked in a combined 113 plate appearances after Sept. 13 that season. It just wasn't cool to take the best hitters out of the game.
Bonds has changed that. But look for Garner to try to give his pitching staff the boost that comes from winning confrontations with Bonds.
He hasn't managed against him since 1999, which was back when Bonds was only a really terrific player -- not the best hitter who ever played. Garner's Milwaukee Brewers teams faced Bonds 14 times in 1998 and '99, and Garner ordered only one intentional pass in 63 plate appearances. Bonds homered twice against the Brewers in 33 at-bats in 1998 and four times in 19 at-bats in '99. He was walked 10 times in those 14 games.
That was a different time, both for Bonds and the managers who face him. We'll see if Garner's approach has changed.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.