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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Panda's crushing loss and Giants' continued hitting woes

The Giants thought they'd dodged a bullet when Pablo Sandoval recovered quickly from a scary ding to his right arm that kept him out of a game. They just didn't see the blow dart coming at them from behind.

The broken hamate bone that will keep Sandoval out for 4-to-6 weeks -- til mid-June, and that's if everything goes right -- could be the stink bomb that explodes on the Giants' hopes to repeat.

Hey, Boss Bochy will dig deep, try to work some magic with the lineup card, and, who knows, maybe Miguel Tejada starts producing from third base and a combination of Mike Fontenot/Manny Burriss (and, after May 10, Mark DeRosa) can conjure some esprit de corps that sets a new tone for the Giants.

But, make no mistake: losing Pablo is crushing for the Giants. He represented a new life force in the lineup, his presence often the only sign of energy for a team seemingly in search of an identity (a strange thing to say, I know, about a world champion team, but there you have it). The zest he brought to the team, carried over from an off-season of deconstructing and reconstructing his whole personal lifestyle, was a true joy for fans and the supposedly impartial observers from the peanut gallery who worried that the Panda was eating his way out of the game.

It showed up in his performance: his glove work, which had always been athletic and at times dazzling, had been consistently brilliant. His quick footwork, his caffienated reactions, his range, his ability to charge on a slow grounder and throw, even the accuracy of his bazooka-like arm: It had all improved and was a delight to see, especially as the rest of the Giants have barely kept afloat in their 13-13 April.

At the plate, Sandoval has had an explosive swing and a renewed focus. He recognizes and waits on changeups before crushing them 400 feet; lashes high fastballs into high and far (and deep) places that were unimaginable last year, when he swung through most of them (though I can't forget San Diego Padre pitcher Mat Latos' stunned expression when Sandoval hit a booming HR last year off an eye-high fastball that the book said he'd miss). He's brought back his smooth stroke, lining singles and doubles all over the park, Panda circa '09.

And, perhaps most impressive, he's shown a remarkable patience at the plate, begging off pitches just off the corners, laying off unhittable hard stuff inside that he'd get himself out on last year. It is no accident that he has eight walks in 91 plate appearances for a .374 on base percentage.

Here's what the Panda has meant to the Giants on the bottom-line ledger:

In games the Giants have lost, Sandoval has gone 12-for-43 with two home runs, a double, three RBI, a .260 batting average, a .326 on base percentage and a slugging percentage of .422. In games the Giants have won, he has gone 14-for-40 with three home runs, two doubles, a triple and 11 RBI and a .675 slugging percentage. With five walks in those games, he's had an on base percentage of .422.

Those latter numbers were monstrous, children, and were foretelling a significant story for 2011.

In all, Pablo Sandoval has generated 20 runs -- five by home runs, nine with RBIs on non-HRs and six with non-HR runs. That's 21 percent of the Giants' total of 95 runs through the first 25 games (the Giants scored two in their first post-Panda game).

If you take out a 10-run game the Giants had (yes, they actually registered a 10-0 win earlier this year over the Dodgers), in which Pablo had only a pinch-hit role, he has meant even more in the other 24 games: he's represented 23.5 percent of the runs the Giants have scored.

It all adds up to: Where the &%$# the Giants get those numbers, and where the @#$%& they capture his spirit is beyond me. I guess the good news is that the rest of the Giants offense can only get better. Right?


Maybe not just yet.

The hitting woes continued Sunday, as Aubrey Huff, Freddie Sanchez, Miguel Tejada and Pat Burrell -- key cogs in the lineup -- continued to flail. The Giants could muster only two runs -- both on a double by the mysteriously footnoted Nate Schierholz -- in another embarrassing loss to an East Coast team that has no business jerking around World Champions.

Huff is now mired in a 3-for-34 slump. That is an .088 clip. So much for turning things around with his game-winning walk and flipping the calendar to May. His recent slide coincides with the Giants 3-7 mark, dating back to the Atlanta sweep. And Huff's struggles go even further back: he's 7 for his last 51 (.137).

Right now, the Giants look better with Posey at first and Eli Whiteside behind the plate.

Huff's bud, Pat Burrell, had looked like he was emerging from his early April funk, going 11-for-27 to raise his batting average to .264 from a low of .167. But since he hit the road, Burrell has gone 2-for-17, and is back down to .238.

And though Miguel Tejada has started picking things up a bit with five hits in his last 15 at bats, he has yet to put on any kind of leadership display offensively. He tried reaching into his Juiced past and go muscular when he swung at a 3-0 pitch with runners at first and second and two outs but grounded out weakly.

First question I had was: Miguel Tejada has the green light? Shouldn't those privileges have been revoked weeks ago?

And Freddie Sanchez appears to be clutching it a bit too tightly, too. He is now 5 for his last 33 (a .151 clip), lowering his batting average to .272. If he had any kind of patience, it might not be so bad. But he's only walked three times in his last 36 appearances, a .222 on base percentage. That's over nine games, when the Giants have gone 3-6.

It's no coincidence that the Giants have scored two runs or less in seven of the last 10 games.

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