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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sanchez wilted under the pressure of a soft one-hopper

Bruce Bochy's decision Friday night to leave Jonathan Sanchez in the game in the 6th inning with two outs, two runners on and a 3-2 lead appeared to be justified when Sanchez elicited a nice, easy one-hopper back to the mound from career minor leaguer Hector Gimenez.

He would escape the jam with the lead in hand, and preserve the heroics of rookie sensation Brandon Belt, who provided all of the Giants' offense with a three-run, Will Clark-evoking home run to straight-away center field.

What wasn't in hand was the softly hit ground ball that floated ever so tantalizingly through the L.A. smog toward the strange-looking leather appendage that stuck on the end of Sanchez' non-throwing arm. They call it a fielder's glove, but it could very well have been a pair of tongs or a lunch pail for all the good it did him.

Sanchez fumbled the grounder, and the game was tied, 3-3. More important, it paved the path to the 4-3 loss. Guillermo Mota gave up the game-winning single to Rafael Furcal on a fat changeup down the middle, but that was a mere formality. The game had turned on Sanchez' shaky glove.

With eight strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, Sanchez was mostly in command and remained so through his last pitch. Sanchez had handled mini-jams through the night, scripting what looked like a new narrative for himself: holding up under pressure by combining a sharp curve, a tumbling split finger and a live fastball, keeping the game close with a steady hand. He rose to the occasion in the bottom of the third when he struck out the dangerous Marcus Thames with runners at second and third and two outs, a run already in.

And at the key juncture of the game, with two outs in the sixth, he elicited that one-hopper on a perfectly executed pitch: a split-fingered fastball diving down to Gimenez' shoetops, exploiting the journeyman's jumpiness at the plate as he stood at the plate with two strikes.

But in the act of fielding that Little League bouncer, all the weakness of baseball character that has followed Sanchez throughout his career, all the demons that have tormented him in high stress moments, came flooding back into view. It's as if he can't escape his destiny.

Maybe it was that Sanchez was so focused on the task at hand -- making the pitch -- that he lost sight of his other job: fielding. Maybe he was so excited to get that ground ball that he wanted to get rid of it before he even fielded it, like a wide receiver who wants to run before he catches the pass.

There's little that can explain a flubbed one-hopper except a lack of concentration. But for Sanchez, it goes deeper. He gets distracted. He panics. He gets flustered in tough spots, allows his emotions to blur his focus. That is his brand.

But it wasn't the ground ball that sparked his panic. It's what came before, the nagging little warts of the game that prick at Sanchez' soul.

The unraveling was set in motion by Dodger outfielder Matt Kemp's burst of speed and guile: After opening the inning with a single, he raced all the way to third on a slow ground ball to the left side. He'd gotten a tremendous jump off the lefty Sanchez (who seemed to pay no mind to the Dodgers' top base-stealing threat), and never broke stride when third baseman Pablo Sandoval fielded the grounder and threw across the diamond for an out.

Kemp, who in the first two games of the season is looking like the game-changer that scouts have predicted for years, scored on a James Loney sacrifice fly ball to make it 3-2. With two outs and nobody on base, though, Sanchez was in a position to limit the damage.

Instead, he gave up a single to Rod Barajas, and then a slow roller to the left side to Aaron Miles that Sandoval should have eaten. But he made an ill-advised and poor throw, which went careening up the line, moving runners to second and third, and drawing a visit from Bochy.

In retrospect, maybe Bochy should have recognized that a play like Sandoval's wild throw would set off the fuse of panic in Sanchez.

Bochy now must face the second-guessers over his decision to leave in Sanchez. He was proven right that Sanchez still had his good stuff and that he could make a tough pitch under trying circumstances. He just wasn't counting on Sanchez wilting under the pressure of a soft one-hopper.

1 comment:

  1. Great articles here Steve....However,I was looking forward to your comments on Sunday's game. We saw some positive signs from DeRosa and Rowand.Matt Cain was "solid" as Kuiper put it. Panda(did not play Sunday) has improved his range and speed but still has the same problems at the plate and needs to mature as a hitter.He cannot lay off bad pitches.I think he should only hit from the left side.He's young so he does have time.

    Also, it's good to have John Miller everyday now that he's not doing ESPN but it would be even better if he could do the Sunday games on Comcast throughout the entire game.