The Panda gives Giants what they were lacking

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Now and then, you see one of those black-and-white panda hats. Not in abundance, like the glory days for the Panda, Pablo Sandoval, and the Giants. But often enough to serve as a reminder of the way it was. And for the guys in the clubhouse, the way it is once more.

Yes, after that 2014 season, the last World Series season in San Francisco — and there was Sandoval grabbing a foul popup near third for the final out — the Panda wanted more loving or more money or something, and not only joined the Red Sox but departed the Bay Area by tossing a few insults at the Giants organization.

But Boston was no place for Sandoval. And when the Red Sox waived him, his weight too large, his batting average too low — and were responsible for a large hunk of the large contract ($90 million) he had signed — the Giants figured it made sense to see what the man can do.

The idea turned out to be brilliant. Not only because with Evan Longoria out for several weeks with a broken hand, Sandoval is starting at third — after also playing first and, glorioski, even second base.

Not only because Sandoval is hitting .281 with six homers.

Not only because Sandoval was intentionally walked in the sixth when the Giants broke loose for five runs in their 6-5 win over Miami on Wednesday.

But maybe most importantly because Sandoval provides the spirit and camaraderie that at times was lacking as the Giants in 2017 collapsed to a 98-loss season.

“Sometimes you can’t put a value on this,” said Brandon Belt. “He’s accepted his role with humility. He keeps everything loose. He keeps you in the right frame of mind.”

Belt, feeling strong again after that emergency appendectomy a couple weeks ago, had three hits including a double in that big sixth, which — and you’ve heard this before about games at AT&T Park, where this one was played — might have been a home run at many other parks.

“We won,” said Belt, cutting to the chase. That they did, winning another series at home (they haven’t dropped one here since early April) and once more creeping to within a game of a .500 record.

They won because with Brandon Crawford away on paternity leave (he returns Thursday), and after consecutive night games Monday and Tuesday following a long trip, both Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey getting a day off, Belt, Nick Hundley, Gorkys Hernandez and, from out of the past, Hunter Pence had notable offensive games.

They won because starter Derek Holland allowed only three runs in six innings and, this is repetitive, pitching wins. Look, the Giants didn’t score until the sixth — the Marlins’ starter, Jose Urena, was sharp — but San Francisco still only trailed 1-0.

“What a job Holland did,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

Bochy also was excited by Gorkys Hernandez’s extended and successful at bat in the sixth, which lasted 13 pitches and concluded with a single to center that scored San Francisco’s fourth and fifth runs.

These Giants may not be leading the standings, but they do know to work a count. Belt set a record by standing in for 21 pitches earlier this season. Now, Hernandez goes 13. That requires a good eye and plenty of patience.

“Gorkys’ at bat was huge for us,” said Belt. “We needed those runs.”

The Giants’ leadoff batter in the first, Alen Hanson, a switch hitter, took a big lefthanded swipe at a Urena pitch, fell and injured his left knee severely enough that he had to be replaced by Kelby Tomlinson.

Another injury, after broken hands on pitches for Longoria and Madison Bumgarner and then reliever Hunter Strickland stupidly punching a wall, busting his. Cursed? Not really, said Bochy. Hanson will be sore but available. Those things happen.

So, for the Giants, do situations like Monday’s game, when ahead 4-0 in the second, they wound up losing 5-4.

Easy then to get depressed, to carry the gloom to the next game — or even for weeks. But not with the Panda around. “You need guys like that,” said Belt.

And once again, the Giants have him.


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