On Base: Problems in Pandaville

Keeping an Eye on The Panda

Keeping an Eye on The Panda

Pregame: Rumblings and Rumors

The low-lying fog began rising over Twin Peaks around 4 p.m. Until then the old Mission Bay tidal basin and riparian Mission Creek had been hot, SoCal hot, never a good sign. With the first fog breezes beginning to enter the Mission, I figure by the sixth inning the bleachers will be freezing. The fog was good to the Giants on Friday night, their only win so far in this home stand.

Having watched the Giants lose three in a row at Mission Creek Ballpark, including last night to the hated Los Angeles Dodgers, Giants fans wake up surly, on edge, feeling personally humiliated by the inability of their hitters to mount a serious rally and frustrated over the control problems plaguing both Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito. Throughout the day, angst fills the blogs and barrooms of the Mission.

Almost everyone agrees that if the Giants are going to make a serious run at the playoffs this year they need another bat, a Big Bat. The name Prince Fielder, a legitimate slugger now with the Milwaukee Brewers, is being kicked around. What would it take to get Mr. Fielder to don a Giants uniform? No one knows for sure, but it would probably take Jonathan Sanchez and someone like Travis Ishakawa or another young pitching prospect.

The lack of hitting, which has plagued the Giants off and on so far this season, raises an issue everyone is talking about, sotto voce, on the field during batting practice: The Case of the Curiously Punchless Panda, Pablo Sandoval.

Inning One: Who Kidnapped Matt Cain?

Through maddening soap opera starts from Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito over the past couple months, Matt Cain has been Mr. Reliable: not flashy, not dramatic; a blazing fastball and a serviceable set of off-speed pitches to mix things up a little, but above all, Matt Cain lets very few runs cross the plate. Except for his last outing in Houston, but let’s forget about those 2.2 innings in which he gave up nine hits and seven earned runs.

Rather than deceive everyone with a strong first inning like Lincecum and Zito, Cain dispenses with the preliminaries and jumps right into the abyss. He strikes out leadoff man Rafael Furcal, but takes seven pitches to do it. It takes another 26 to get out of the inning. He gives up a run and leaves the bases loaded. Of his endless 33 pitches this inning, only 18 were strikes.

Andres Torres doubles to lead off the bottom half of the first. Freddy Sanchez draws a walk. And coming to the plate, back in a position in the batting order reserved for a top hitter, Pablo Sandoval. He gets a lot of wood on the ball, a long out, but more than enough to move Torres to third, where Aubrey Huff can drive him home with another long fly ball. Throwing 30 pitches to get three outs, of which only 14 are strikes, Los Angeles rookie pitcher John Ely makes Cain look in control.

Inning Three: Exhibit A

Matt Cain picks himself up in the second inning and puts the Dodgers down one, two, three. In the bottom of the inning, Freddy Sanchez rips a line shot straight up the middle and now Recurring Panda Out Production, Exhibit A. Trying to be patient at the plate this year, Sandoval nonetheless swings (or flails) on the first pitch he sees, a changeup, hitting a ground ball right at second baseman Blake DeWitt, who turns it into a double play. Sandoval’s hitting numbers are way off what they were last year, but it’s the double plays that are killing the Giants. Sandoval leads the National League with 18 hits into double plays.

Inning Five: Who Kidnapped Matt Cain?

After three solid innings, Cain implodes with another 30 pitches in the fifth, resulting in three more more runs. The key sequence is when Cain faces James Loney with two outs, runners at second and third. Cain throws two 91-mph heaters past Loney for two called strikes. It’s been a rough inning for Cain, but one more pitch and the inning ends, no damage done. But that one pitch never gets delivered. Instead he throws five more, the last being a 92-mph fastball that Loney slices to bring in two runs.

Inning Six: Exhibit B

John Ely just keeps chugging along, as the Giants seem intent on turning a mediocre Dodger pitching staff into The Unhittables. Panda Sleeprunning Exhibit B. Pablo Sandoval hits another ground ball, this time to Loney at first. It would have been a double play had anyone been on base, but no one is, so there’s only one out. Wait. The umpire says Loney’s throw pulled Ely off the bag, so the Panda is safe! It’s rally time! Burrell singles to right; the Panda swings around second, looking like he might try going to third, then thinks better of it, returning with a bellyflop that’s too late; the ball is already in Blake DeWitt’s hand, waiting for him. It’s Sandoval’s second mindless base-running mistake in two nights. Fans boo the popular Panda as he trots off the field.

Inning Eight: A Cold War in the Bleachers

An icy wind whips out to the promenade overlooking the mouth of Mission Creek, reminding more than one fan of Candlestick Park on a mild night. Giants and Dodgers fans taunt one another in the bleachers, but the interaction never rises above the level of banter. When center-fielder Matt Kemp dives to rob Andres Torres of a multiple base hit, Giants fans concede the beauty of the play, and some, grudgingly, return high-fives offered by Dodger fans. San Franciscans are too cold, tired or depressed to fight their counterparts tonight. Or maybe, like their team, they’ve already passed out.

Inning Nine: A Kid’s Game

According to Pablo’s older brother Michael Sandoval, the Panda is not like a kid, the Panda is aS kid. And he plays like one. After the game, Bruce Bochy refused to condemn Sandoval’s base-running misadventures, marking them up to youthful enthusiasm. Panda defenders also point out that his wild swings derive from playing as a kid with his brother in the garage, and they caution against pushing Sandoval to grow up too fast. His enthusiasm can be infectious, pumping up the team and the fans. But while we could all use some excitement in our lives, watching a guy hit repeatedly into double plays or get picked off running bases is not what we had in mind.

Whatever the problem with Sandoval, the Giants’ problems go much deeper than one player, and they will need more than one bat, even a Big Bat, if they are going to make themselves into a playoff baseball team.

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