Hunter Pence

Giants break losing skid with Pence’s return and Cain’s best start in ages

Hunter Pence tongue

Baseball is a funny game. Those who write about baseball tend to describe baseball’s funny traits more than scribes who cover any other sport, save for golf. But the Giants were the walking dead yesterday after a road trip full of six games they should’ve forfeited, followed by a cross-country flight. After their first win of the month, a 3-0 victory over the Mets, everything seems just fine.

Pence is back! Matt Cain looked surprisingly good! Santiago Casilla faced the minimum in the ninth inning! (He walked the first guy he faced, but still!)

Something needed to be done after last night’s snoozer, but it’s not like the Giants have a prospect who would instantly change the tenor of the clubhouse or the lineup by his presence alone. Bobby Evans can’t just snap his fingers and make a trade happen, at least not this early in the month. So they looked toward the intense, musclebound outfielder whose arm isn’t fully healed (and probably won’t be this season), saw a bunch of batting practice rockets flying off his bat, and in effect said:

“Let’s take Pence at his word that he’s fine, and not waste any of his energy, at-bats or defense on the Sacramento River Cats this time.”

Pence looked like a guy who was facing live pitching for the first time in over a month in his first at-bat against Bartolo Colon, but he broke a 0-0 tie in the third inning (with these two teams, any run scored is a huge deal) with an RBI groundout. He hit a single the other way to plate Joe Panik in the fifth inning to give the Giants a 3-0 lead. But it was the play he made the next inning that will be remembered around here for … ever?

Curtis Granderson led off the top of the sixth with a fly ball that easily beat Angel Pagan to the base of the wall in left-center (more on that later). Granderson ended up with a triple. Allowing one run was inevitable — Cain’s task was to keep things from getting out of hand.

Ruben Tejada hit a foul pop down the right field line. Pence did a very nice job just getting to the ball and making a basket catch 18 inches above the ground before hitting the grass and sliding about 10 feet. Granderson isn’t Billy Hamilton, but he can move OK. In one motion, Pence got up, spun and threw a laser that Andrew Susac caught on the fly. Granderson slid into the tag just before his foot brushed home plate, and the look on his face showed that there would be no replay review.

With one play, Pence made Cain’s first home start of the season look especially great. More important, and more noticeable at the time, he woke up everyone — not just on his team, but those watching this game and wondering when the Giants were going to snap out of this “July Awry” thing, or whatever the hell was going on with them.

It seems insane to even think about, let alone write for public consumption. But Pence’s catch-and-throw seemed like the play that might change the course of the Giants’ season. If they lose badly tomorrow, or Pence has another injury setback, sweep that sentiment into a dustpan and dump it into the AT&T Park garden compost heap. But that’s the feeling Pence creates. I’ll always remember when he gave that speech after last season’s playoff spot was clinched. Then he walked over to Bruce Bochy and gave him a powerful embrace. After breaking away, he stormed past me and yelled, “PLAYOFFS! GET SOME!”

At that point, I was convinced they wouldn’t lose in Pittsburgh.

After the top of the sixth concluded, Pence received as big of a hug as you’ll see Cain dole out in the dugout. Pence’s words get a lot of attention, and they’re pretty powerful, but they’re nothing compared to what his teammates see and feel on the field. Pence is in perpetual motion, even between pitches. He said he was emotional before tonight’s game, because one never knows when baseball will be taken away. The talent, the rare combination of strength and speed, is undeniable. The passion and work ethic are contagious, and it’s hard to pass that bug on to his teammates when he’s on the DL, no matter how cheerful Pence is or what he says.

The smart play would’ve been to take advantage of the extra off days and wait until after the All-Star Break to bring him back. But Bochy, Evans and the rest of the decision-makers knew from looking at the team’s pathetic performance over the last seven games — culminating with the clunker of all clunkers on Monday night — that if they waited that long, Pence’s return might have come too late.

He plays like a linebacker, smiles like a kid who just scored his first goal in youth soccer, and no one else on the Giants (or all of Major League Baseball, for that matter) is like him. It was ugly at times, especially recently, but the Giants were able to tread water in Pence’s absence. If he’s able to stick around for the rest of the season, a night like tonight makes it seem like anything is possible.

Extra BASGs

— If Pence really wants to impress us, he should harness his boundless energy and become a healer.

  • “Pence placed his hand on Aoki’s leg, and he jumped out of his chair and started running faster than ever!”
  • “Pence prepared a fresh salad of locally-sourced kale and kumquats for Affeldt, and now he’s back to throwing 95 mile per hour Rembrandts again!”
  • “I don’t know how he did it, but Pence just convinced Pagan that it’s a contract year!”

— I still need to see Cain perform close to this well against a team other than the Mets before I’m a true believer, but this was a very good sign. He’s throwing just as hard as he was before the downturn which led to the surgery on his elbow, his pitches are moving, and he’s hitting his targets more often than not. And, perhaps the biggest key, no home runs allowed.

— His last outing where he allowed no runs in at least six innings came on June 28, 2014 against the Reds, when he pitched seven scoreless and the Giants lost 7-3 in 11 innings. Talk about a true Caining.

— Cain did give up a double to Kevin Plawecki and that triple to Granderson, with both balls landing in similar spots. If you saw the way Pagan pursued, and already read what I wrote about Pagan earlier today, you know what I’m thinking … he’s running pretty gingerly out there, let’s leave it at that.

— I’ve been pretty busy with childcare and family/holiday stuff lately so I’m a little late on this, but congratulations to Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik on their All-Star nods. We knew Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey would make it, since Posey is the best and most famous catcher in the game and Bumgarner ruled the 2014 postseason. But Crawford had to shed the good-glove-no-bat label and Panik was considered to be only slightly better than average heading into this year by a lot of baseball observers. Instead, Crawford is on pace for over 20 homers and Panik is fourth in the National League in hits.

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