TORONTO — Pablo Sandoval may not be the Giants’ best hitter throughout the season, but he’s their best hitter right now.
With a 424-foot opposite field home run in the top of the eighth on Tuesday, Sandoval became the first Giants player to record a three-hit game this year as he provided a critical insurance run in a 7-6 win over the Blue Jays.
“He’s amazing,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He really is. He’s one of those guys who can sit on the bench for a week and go up there and give you a good at-bat.”
Sandoval’s blast extended the Giants’ lead to 7-2, but reliever Tony Watson gave up a grand slam to rookie Rowdy Tellez in the bottom of the eighth that made the final outs rather uncomfortable for San Francisco.
Serving as the Giants’ designated hitter, Sandoval singled from both sides of the plate early in the game before clubbing the team’s fourth home run of the night as a left-handed hitter in the eighth. Tuesday’s win marked the first time the Giants have hit four home runs in the same game since July 16, 2016 when they achieved the feat at Petco Park against the Padres.
With three hits in four at-bats, Sandoval improved his average to a team-high .344 as he continues to make a case for more playing time.
“I keep working hard every day and come to the field to have a lot of fun out there,” Sandoval said. “When they give me the opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Second baseman Joe Panik, third baseman Evan Longoria and first baseman Brandon Belt all went deep for the Giants, who appeared ready to cruise to their second consecutive win behind one of the best bullpens in baseball.
After right-hander Sam Dyson loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth, Watson came on and recorded a strikeout before Tellez made stomachs turn in the visiting dugout.
Closer Will Smith recorded his sixth save of the season on a night that taught us a lot about the 2019 Giants. Here are three big things we learned Tuesday.
1. Panik produces
Of all the Giants who have struggled at the plate this season, it’s possible no one has suffered through a tougher start to the year than Panik. The second baseman entered Tuesday’s game hitting .177 and slugging .210, numbers that have forced manager Bruce Bochy to turn to switch-hitter Yangervis Solarte to replace Panik when the Giants face left-handed starters.
Panik hasn’t made many hard outs, but for one of the game’s most consistent contact hitters, a .211 batting average on balls in play is lower than the Giants would expect from him.
After Pirates first baseman Josh Bell leaped to steal a 102.8-mile per hour liner from Panik in the Giants’ loss on Friday, Panik smacked a second-inning offering from starter Tyler Thornton over the head of Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak to knock in a pair of runs. The 106.2-mile per hour double was his hardest-hit ball of the season and foreshadowed an even more impressive swing in his next at-bat.
In the top of the fifth, Panik slugged a 414-foot laser of a home run to right center field to extend the Giants’ lead to 4-1. Panik’s solo shot was the farthest ball he’s hit since he launched a 426-foot triple off R.A. Dickey on May 28, 2017 and his first home run since June 30, 2018.
“It starts to weigh on you a little bit when you haven’t hit a home run,” Bochy said. “I looked up on the scoreboard and they mentioned how long it’s been since Joe Panik hit one and he hit one in that at-bat.”
Panik tied the team-high for the season with six total bases in a game and gave the Giants a glimmer of hope that he may have found a slight mechanical fix that could go a long way toward helping him improve his overall numbers.
2. Superman returns
For casual Giants fans who may not follow the sport closely, the team’s early-April trade for Kevin Pillar was a solid, if unspectacular addition for a club that desperately needed another right-handed bat.
For casual Blue Jays fans, the Pillar deal was a disappointing loss for a fan base that fell in love with a center fielder who plays the game just like Hunter Pence. There’s only one speed, and it’s full speed.
Three weeks after the trade, Pillar returned to the Rogers Centre and received a hero’s welcome from a crowd of 20,384. As the Giants took the field in the bottom of the first inning, his teammates stayed in the dugout and allowed Pillar to run out to center field on his own to take in a hearty ovation.
“I’m a pretty emotional guy,” Pillar said. “So I held back some tears there and I tried to really focus on what I need to do. In some way, I think that helped me for my first at-bat.”
The Blue Jays played a video tribute for Pillar and ended it by flashing the words, “Thank you, Kevin” on the board for all to see. Toronto’s fans didn’t limit their applause, either, as they cheered Pillar on an RBI single in the second inning and clapped again each time he caught a fly ball in center field.
“The way he plays, guys like that should be a rock star,” starter Jeff Samardzija said. “Guys like that should definitely be pushed more by this league. Guys that play hard and when you watch them play, you know they play because they love the game.”
Pillar’s homecoming was a reminder that while so much of baseball is influenced by analytics and numbers, fans do not fall in love with the sport by analyzing how wRC+ and FIP are calculated. They want an emotional connection to their favorite team and the outpouring of support Pillar received in Toronto made it clear just how much he meant to the Blue Jays.
3. How they draw it up…or not
Samardzija, an outspoken critic of “the Opener” strategy sweeping across baseball, does not want to see any Giants relievers pitching in a game before him. There was a time, though, when the right-hander didn’t want any relievers pitching behind him either.
For most of Samardzija’s career, he viewed 200-inning seasons as a benchmark he shouldn’t simply meet, but clear with ease.
This spring, Samardzija admitted he’s changed the way he views success and is now comfortable turning a game over to the bullpen midway through a game. After allowing just one run over five innings, Samardzija began to struggle in the sixth as Blue Jays hitters faced him for the third time.
A solo home run and a few more hard-hit balls forced Bochy to turn to his bullpen, but that’s the strength of this Giants team and they had the chance to show why on Tuesday.
The relievers didn’t make things look easy.
After Mark Melancon closed out the sixth, Dyson turned in a solid seventh before allowing a leadoff walk in the eighth. The first three hitters reached against Dyson, who didn’t record an out before Watson entered.
Watson nearly struck out Tellez on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, but the Blue Jays designated hitter just nicked a fastball off the inside corner. Tellez sent the next pitch into the right center field seats.
It was hardly an ideal night for the Giants’ bullpen, but Smith shut the door after entering with a one-run lead.