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8:22PM

Pence on winning hit: ‘Like a kid on Christmas morning’

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — He’s 35, and from some of his swings of late, hopeless rips at balls around his shoulders, and that sub-.200 batting average, Hunter Pence looked like a man whose career was coming to an end.

Which his critics, pounding on him via social media, said would be a good idea.

Sure, he had some great times with the Giants, but you have to deal with the present, don’t you? And Pence is of the past, right? Why send down Mac Williamson and keep Pence and his big contract?

Because he’s a leader. And it you listen to his teammates in the clubhouse — or watched them bounce from the dugout to swarm around Pence in the bottom of the 11th on Sunday at AT&T Park — he’s also a winner.

There were the Giants, down a run with one out and nobody on. As Pence said, “It happens real quick in baseball. You’ve got to be ready for anything.” Especially an unsuspected Giants comeback for a 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres that could be called the biggest of this season.

Andrew McCutchen doubled. Buster Posey, naturally, was walked intentionally — he’d already had a single and double — and, whoa, Brandon Crawford was hit by a pitch. Bases loaded, yes, but Pence, with a groundout and two strikeouts coming to the plate against Brad Hand, one of the game’s better closers.

“Getting an opportunity like that, bases loaded, one out, down a run,” Pence would say afterward, “it’s being a kid on Christmas morning for me. There’s a lot of responsibility, but that’s what you dream of.”

He bounced one just inside the first base line, McCutchen and Posey scored, Pence would get a double and the Giants would get the series win, three games to one.

First we learn Johnny Cueto is progressing in rehab, then we watch the Pence and the Giants perform a mini-miracle.

Ballplayers with the experience and residual success of Hunter Pence view things differently than most of us. They don’t think so much about what they haven’t done, the .193 batting average after coming back from the disabled list, but what can be done.

“I don’t really harp on that,” he said about statistics that have to be called negative. “I play to go win the game. Since I came back (he was out with a sprained thumb, then had to rehab), I got a chance to start. I’ve had better days. My pinch hitting is not as good as I want it to be. But I just want to be as prepared as I can.

“By the end of the year, the numbers will be what they will be.”

The numbers Sunday for Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez were interesting. He gave up a homer on a 3-2 pitch to the first man to step into the batter’s box at AT&T, Manuel Margot. Yikes, 1-0 instantly.

But that was it for a long while. Rodriguez — yes, son of Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez — went six innings.

“That was a lot of fun,” said Dereck. “My curve ball was the best it’s been. I’d rather have the leadoff guy hit a home run and shut them down the rest of the way than have a guy hit one in the sixth inning.”

The win kept the Giants above .500 in the standings, and while that’s not quite what will win a title, it’s a psychological barrier they must surpass. It makes them winners, in fact as well as in mind, and with a ton of home games coming up they might become a presence.

“We had to find a way to win that game,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “You want to stay away from the strikeout. When you put a ball in play, good things happen.”

The Giants have a rare and necessary day off on Monday. Bochy probably will go fishing. 

Pence may just reflect.

“I’m not going to get super-down on myself,” said Pence. “It’s a team game. You want to do your best for the team and the city. I focus on being a good person, and the rest will take care of itself.”

It definitely did on Sunday.

11:05PM

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.

 

6:40PM

Giants offense may be as good as they hoped

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Only one game, but what a game. A game that might lead to a trend and, at the least, stopped a three-game losing streak. A game in which the offense that the Giants hoped they had, an offense the Giants needed, was alive and well.

This Giants lineup is supposed to be good, perhaps outstanding. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford already were there. Then they added Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, and the days of losing 2-1 or 3-2 — or, worse, 1-0 — were supposed to be over.

Technically, they were, but in the previous three games before Saturday the Giants scored, in order, three runs, three runs and one run, a total of seven. And they lost all three.

But finally, everything clicked. Balls were flying into the corners. Players were flying around the bases.

Brandon Crawford had a home run, double, single and four runs batted in. The other Brandon, Belt, had two hits and an RBI. McCutchen had two doubles and a single. Miguel Gomez, the fill-in second baseman (and in the ninth inning, an outfielder), had two hits and two runs scored.

And most importantly, the Giants had a 9-4 win over the Rockies at AT&T Park, where the wind was reminiscent of Candlestick Park and the victory reminiscent of those World Series years.

“It takes time,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy of the team's hitting. “These guys are good, but this is what we were expecting. They’re good hitters.”

In the early part of this ’18 season, Belt has been an excellent hitter. He has 10 home runs. He’s hitting .308. He has 26 RBI.

“I thought this is where I could be,” said Belt, 30, in his eighth season with San Francisco. “But until now, it hasn’t been the case. I feel comfortable at bat.”

Belt worked on his swing during spring training. He’s always been a patient hitter, as that record 21-pitch at bat against the Angels showed recently. Now he’s more aggressive.

Surely having Buster Posey (.307 after two hits Saturday) ahead of him in the lineup and Even Longoria after him (although Longoria so far has to match what people were hoping) has aided Belt.

You look at the Dodgers, Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and once again Justin Turner, and you find power and consistency, what seemingly the Giants lacked and a reason L.A. finished 40 games ahead of San Francisco a year ago.

But now, the Giants have some punch.

“We’re better this year,” said Bochy, “and we’re not there yet. We haven’t hit our stride.”

Crawford, the All-Star shortstop, is hitting his — and hitting the ball. He was 3-for-5 Saturday with a home run and four RBI.

Nothing is permanent in sport. A kicker may change his steps on field goals, a golfer the angle of his swing. Unintentionally, of course. Crawford said he got advice from teammates, including Pablo Sandoval, and raised his bat ever so slightly. His batting average has been raised more than slightly, to .302.

“And our bullpen has been really good,” said Bochy, knowing full well in the end that pitching wins games. On Saturday, Will Smith, back after a year following Tommy John surgery, Pierce Johnson, Sam Dyson and Tony Watson didn’t give up a run after they followed starter Chris Stratton, who went five innings and gained the victory.

After Sunday, the Giants go on the road. They’ll be around the .500 mark. Madison Bumgarner is throwing again. Jeff Samardzija appears to have regained his touch. 

Maybe there’s a summer of success on the horizon.

7:57AM

Bochy has a new view of McCutchen and Longoria

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — The thinking last year, misled as it might have been, was that the Giants would sign Giancarlo Stanton, the free agent with the big bat. But of course he went to the Yankees, so San Francisco ended up trading for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, who, well, aren’t Giancarlo Stanton.

But as Giants manager Bruce Bochy explained, they have attributes that, from the opposing dugout, were not as apparent as they have turned out to be.

Numbers were only part of the equation, said Bochy on a Monday night when the Giants returned from an awful road trip — they were almost zero for Pennsylvania — and, in un-Giants-like style, got home runs, doubles and a 10-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

McCutchen, obtained from Pittsburgh, had a couple of those doubles, his 1,499th and 1,500th hits in the majors. Longoria, who came from Tampa Bay, had the other and a single.

After the victory that pushed the Giants back to .500 (21-21), Bochy gave a baseball man’s observations about skills that a fan or journalist may not understand.

“When you watch those great players with tremendous talent, from the other side,” said Bochy, “you are hoping they don’t hurt you and beat you in some way. But you do appreciate the talent they have. Until you have a chance to see them on an everyday basis, to work with them, you don’t appreciate how good they are.

“Five-tool players (hit, run, throw, field, hit with power). The ball (McCutchen) hit in center would have been out of every other ballpark. He’s got speed. Doing a great job in right field. You watch those guys every day and have a basis on how good they are.”

They had company. In the eighth inning of a game that would feature 27 hits, Brandon Belt hit his seventh home run of the season. Earlier shortstop Brandon Crawford, who would have been rested if so many infielders weren’t injured, had two doubles and drove in two runs.

The evening was unusual. The small crowd (36,156 announced) seemed just as interested — maybe more interested — in the Warriors' playoff victory over the Houston Rockets.

A 3.5 earthquake centered across the bay in Oakland was felt in the stands. And the Giants, after losing six in a row at Philly and Pittsburgh, won their second in a row.

“We played well tonight,” affirmed Bochy, who was less happy with the performances on the road. “It’s tough travel coming back from Pittsburgh. But we were ready to play. I just loved the energy.”

And the runs. Every time it appeared the Giants would break things open, going in front 6-1 in the third, then 10-4 in the eighth, the Reds, who were on a six-game win streak and had swept the Dodgers in L.A., got close — if never in front.

“It was important we got those runs,” said Bochy. “Important to start a home stand this way.”

Chris Stratton was the Giants' starter, but he came out after five innings, having been battered for two homers and four runs.

“We’re fortunate we hit tonight,” said Bochy, “because they were scoring runs too. Those are the things that win ballgames, clutch hitting. Really through our lineup, we have professional hitters who know how to drive in runs. They have a nose for an RBI.”

On the 4-6 trip (which started with three wins in Atlanta, followed by four losses in Philly and two more in Pittsburgh), the Giants had a nose for the strikeout. Then Sunday, they beat the Pirates 5-0. Exhale.

Everything that went wrong suddenly went right. On Monday, catcher Buster Posey threw out Rosell Herrera trying to steal in the sixth, halting a Reds rally.

“To me, that was on one of the turning points of the game,” said Bochy. “That was a beautiful throw.”

9:04PM

Giants ahead of last year — and ahead of the Dodgers

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Bruce Bochy had his own vision. ”We’re not where we were hoping to be,” said the Giants manager. But they’re ahead of last year and ahead of the Dodgers, which isn’t all that bad.

Especially considering the start — two weeks ago, they had lost four more games than they had won. Especially considering the injuries — no Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija for a while, and still no Madison Bumgarner.

But there they are after Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Dodgers, winners of three straight series, winners of six of 10 from Los Angeles — ridiculous that two teams play each other 10 times in April, even historical rivals — and at .500 for the season as May approaches.

Oh yeah, for those whose vocabulary consists of two words, “Beat L.A.,” a chant heard frequently among the sellout crowd of 42,020 at AT&T Park, although a sizeable percentage was heard cheering, “Let’s go Dodgers,” the Giants, supposed also-rans, are 14-14, compared to the 12-15 of the defending National League champion Dodgers.

It’s early. That’s the baseball mantra whether you’re off to a good start or a poor start. But this start has to be encouraging, with Evan Longoria doing what was needed when they got him in a trade over the winter, and Brandon Belt showing patience (that 21-pitch at bat against the Angels) and power (a run-scoring double Sunday and six home runs).

The Giants are getting the long ball. The Giants are getting solid pitching, Ty Blach going six innings, giving up six hits and two runs; then competent work by Sam Dyson and Tony Watson, and then Hunter Strickland, the closer, going 1-2-3 in the ninth.

That’s what the Giants couldn’t do a year ago, burst with a big home run, then cut off an opponent’s rally. You’ve got to hit the ball out of the park these days. You’ve always had to shut down the other team if you’ve had the lead in the ninth.

On Saturday, the Giants and Dodgers had a long day’s journey into night, a makeup of a rainout and then a scheduled game, a day-night doubleheader. And in the afternoon, the Giants gave up 15 runs for the second time in three games.

The argument could be made then that the win in the second game, a true nightcap as the announcers used to call them with play not starting until 7:30 p.m., was San Francisco’s biggest game of the spring.

Down early, the Giants won. They had a chance Sunday to get to .500, and they made good use of the opportunity. Being even is so much bigger psychologically than being one game below.

“Both teams were tired,” said Bochy of the Saturday marathon. “Longoria’s homer gave us a jump start. We wanted to get on the board first. You always want to score early. That home run was big.”

So was Blach, who had that opening-day shutout of the Dodgers, then lost to them and has now beat them again.

“One of those things,“ said Bochy of Blach’s effectiveness against L.A. “I’m sure he gets caught up in the tension. The fans get into it, here or down there. He just seems to pick it up against them. He’s getting back to who he is.”

So is Longoria, who was struggling, perhaps trying too hard to prove that the Giants made the right deal in acquiring him. He was fifth in the batting order Sunday, behind Buster Posey, who was third, and Belt. In the first inning, with two outs and nobody on, Posey doubled, Belt walked and Longoria hit his sixth homer of the young season.

“It’s always up to the heart of the order over the course of a season to drive in runs,” said Bochy. “That’s what they’re there for, what they’re paid to do. Sure the table-setters get on, but those guys ... you lean on those guys.”

Those guys give the other guys, the pitchers, the ability to throw the ball without worrying that every run will be critical, even thought with the Giants it’s usually the situation.

“When we have a lead, like we had, we can attack,” said Blach. “We don’t have to be as fine. A lot of guys are contributing. There’s depth in the lineup.”

And success, if minimal, on the field.