By Brian Brownfield-
San Francisco Bay Area residents have long been blessed with a multitude of successful sport franchises. From the storied pasts of the Raiders and 49ers to the recent successes of the Giants and Warriors, each professional sports team in the Bay Area is a contributor to memory-filled seasons. As we gear up for the summer of 2016, there are no doubts that our generation has not seen Bay Area sports be this exciting. Records broken, patterns followed, and unorthodox methods for victory are creating a plateau for exciting sports. So far, five Bay Area sports teams are in season with two entrenched in what could be long postseason runs. Let’s break down each of the five teams currently playing and see what makes this such an awesome time to be a fan of Bay Area sports.
Golden State Warriors
It’s no secret that the National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) Golden State Warriors are the hottest topic among sports media. The reigning NBA champions continued to raise the bar during the 2015-2016 season by winning their first 24 games, a feat never accomplished in the NBA or in professional American sports. Dominating play at home was the theme, winning an NBA-record of 54 consecutive games at Oracle Arena dating back to the previous season. Their 34 road wins is also an NBA record. Most impressively, the Warriors set the NBA record for most wins in a season, going 73-9. The previous record was 72-10 set by the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls, a record that previously seemed unbeatable. Led by the reigning MVP Stephen Curry, the Warriors feature one of the most potent offenses in the league. Curry has elevated his game to the next level, leading the league in field goal percentage, three-pointers, free throw percentage, steals per game, and points per game. Curry became just the seventh player in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club (50% field goals, 40% three-point field goals, 90% free throw percentage). Adding to the video game-like numbers, Curry also set a record by making 402 three-pointers, breaking the mark of 286 he set the season before.
Okay, so we all know the Warriors are one of the greatest teams of all-time. But can they back it up with another NBA title? That will be determined over the coming weeks as the NBA playoffs just began in the middle of April. As of May, the Warriors defeated the Houston Rockets in the first round, and are up 1-0 over the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round. Many might question how much the Dubs (as they are affectionately called) have left in the tank after they fought so hard for win number 73. Even more concerning is the ankle/foot injury suffered by Curry after the Warriors won the first game against the Rockets. Curry returned for Game 4 of the series only to exit at halftime after sustaining a knee injury. Regardless, the Warriors will continue to captivate everyone in the Bay Area and the country with their high-octane style of play. Heck, even the author of this article enjoys watching them shoot their way past everyone (correct, I do not watch much basketball).
San Jose Sharks
Many of you avid Menlo Oak Press readers might remember my article a few months back about trying to figure out the San Jose Sharks. At the time, the Sharks had the worst home record among National Hockey League (NHL) playoff-qualifying teams, but the best road record. By the end of the season in April, neither of those changed. The Sharks qualified for the playoffs after missing out the season before, and opened up against a familiar foe: the Los Angeles Kings. The NorCal vs. SoCal rivalry amongst the two teams has become one of the fiercest in the NHL. To further amplify the significance of the rivalry, the teams have met in four of the last six postseasons. In the 2014 playoffs, the Kings became the fourth NHL team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit when they beat the Sharks in the opening round by winning the final four games. Needless to say, the Sharks had revenge on their minds going into this opening round series.
The Sharks took advantage of their so-called “Road-Ice Advantage” (being the lower seed means playing one more game on the road) by beating the Kings in the first two games played in Los Angeles. The Kings won game three of the series 2-1 in overtime, but the Sharks finished off the Kings by winning game four 3-2 and game five 6-3 to #BeatLA (sorry Kings fans) and advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Large contributions were received from team captain Joe Pavelski, defenseman Brent Burns, and goalie Martin Jones. Pavelski led the team with five goals in the series while tallying an assist. Burns continued to be one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, scoring twice and racking up six assists. Jones was stellar in the net for the Sharks, allowing just 2.18 goals per game in the series and holding a steady 0.912 save percentage. Is it enough for San Jose to make a deep run in the playoffs? As of May 5th, the Sharks are tied 2-2 with the Nashville Predators in the second round of playoffs. The team might be peaking at the right time, and I did mention in my last Sharks article that if they got hot at this time, they would be dangerous. Coincidence?
No, I am not putting the Oakland Athletics ahead of the San Francisco Giants because I am a fan of the Green and Gold. I am doing so because, as of May 1, the Athletics are 13-13 and 1.5 games out of first place in the American League West. As is typical with the Athletics, trades and roster moves were the story of their offseason as they rebuilt their roster with a very low payroll. The 2015 Oakland Athletics finished last in the AL West and a large contributing reason was the lackluster performance of their bullpen. To address the issue, the Athletics revamped their bullpen in the offseason by acquiring Liam Hendriks, Marc Rzepczynski, and signing Ryan Madson and John Axford. The early returns for the bullpen have been successful, with the Athletics bullpen racking up a 5-2 record and a 2.49 earned run average, fourth best in baseball. Their starters haven’t been too bad either, as their 4.19 earned run average is middle of the road.
It’s never truly an easy task for the Athletics to compete because of their limited payroll. The limitation comes from a combination of two factors: the owners and the market size. The ownership group for the Oakland Athletics is the fourth richest in Major League Baseball, yet their team consistently has a payroll that is in the bottom-five of the league. This is a result of the owners choosing profit over performance, perhaps as a strategic move to aid the push for a new stadium. To make things more complicated, the Oakland market is not nearly the giant (no pun intended) that the San Francisco market is. With its scenic views and historic landmarks, San Francisco becomes more popular for tourists and media, leaving Oakland on the outside looking in. Despite all odds, the Athletics have continued to be somewhat relevant in recent years. Their young core of players and retooled bullpen have provided an intriguing beginning to the 2016 season which should continue into the summer.
San Francisco Giants
2010, 2012, 2014. Those are the last three times the Giants have made the playoffs and coincidentally won the World Series. They missed the playoffs in 2015, but it is an even year once again. Can we just give the Giants the title? Do I even need to explain why this year should be exciting?
The Giants are 13-13 as of May 1, which is a bit surprising given the talent on the team. The pitching staff was a question mark going into the offseason despite being led by ace Madison Bumgarner. The front office addressed this issue by signing two of the biggest names on the market: Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. Cueto was a member of the 2015 World Series Champion team, the Kansas City Royals, and has long been considered a top-tier starting pitcher. Samardzija finished off a disappointing 2015 season with the Chicago White Sox and should benefit from pitching in the pitcher-friendly stadium that is AT&T Park. Buster Posey and Hunter Pence will continue to anchor a lineup that is solid from top to bottom with producers such as Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Matt Duffy. Don’t forget about the acquisition of Denard Span to play center field.
In even-years past, the Giants don’t seem to be legitimate contenders until the playoffs roll around. However, this year the Giants actually seem to be legitimate contenders, which is scary for the rest of the league. The surprisingly average start should not concern Giants fans as the team has far too much potential to stay around the .500 mark. Some teams just don’t come out of the gate as hot as they should, and that probably explains the Giants start to the season. In reality it doesn’t really matter how the season begins because we all know how it’s going to end, right? Bumgarner will pitch every game of the World Series, Posey will hit .463, and relief pitcher Sergio Romo won’t give up a run the entire postseason. Okay, so these are all exaggerations, but look for the Giants to be alive late in the season.
San Jose Earthquakes
For the Bay Area residents who may have forgotten, there is in fact a Major League Soccer (MLS) team located in San Jose. The Earthquakes have long lived in the shadows of the major sports teams in the area, but with the rise of the MLS they are looking to make their own mark in the Bay Area. The first step was to build a brand new stadium which is arguably nicer than Levi’s Stadium. It opened in 2015 and features the largest open-air bar in North America. Let’s just say this place is the perfect fit for a sport that features fans screaming for 90-plus minutes each game.
By the way, the team is looking pretty solid in 2016. The Earthquakes are 4-2-3 as of May 2, and a near-perfect 4-0-1 in their second-year stadium. The team is led by forward Chris Wondolowski, who has been with the team since 2009. It’s easy to see why he is the most popular player on the team. He is the only player in the MLS to score ten or more goals each season in six consecutive seasons, and he scored his 100th goal in 2015. His consistency and mentorship to the team are also invaluable and he is one of the few players who can always be counted on to come up in the clutch. Wondolowski already leads the team with seven goals in 2016. Another important player to keep your eye out for is David Bingham, the team’s goalkeeper. He has done a fantastic job keeping the opposition off the scoreboard. His first season with the Earthquakes was 2015 and he finished with 12 shutouts, good for third in the MLS and tied for the most in franchise history. Bingham has already recorded three shutouts to begin the 2016 season and seems poised to build off his strong 2015 season. Surrounding players such as Quincy Amarikwa, Alberto Quintero, and Shea Salinas have Earthquakes fans excited and screaming as loudly as ever.
Let the Good Times Roll
As awesome as 2016 has been for Bay Area sports, the outlook is bright for upcoming seasons. The Warriors are building around Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to provide what could be an eventual dynasty (three championships in four years). The Sharks have seen the growth of young players this season that will give them added experience for next year. The Athletics always have an overflow of young talent that excites the fanbase. The Giants ownership has shown a willingness to spend money to help fill roster holes. The Earthquakes are on the rise in the MLS and looking to cement themselves as legitimate contenders. All things considered, the future of Bay Area sports looks just as bright as ever and should continue to excite fans for years to come.