SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Giants return almost every member from their 2012 World Series team. But one visible personality did not travel on the charter flight home when the club broke camp on Wednesday.
Brian Wilson hasn’t been gone long. And he’s impossible to forget.
“Especially in these dog days at the end of spring training, this is when he’d do something to keep us on edge,” said Giants left-hander Javier Lopez, who recently exchanged texts with Wilson. “This is when we miss him.”
Almost a year after his elbow gave way on the club’s first road trip last season, Wilson is still trying to ramp up his throwing program, get back to full strength and entice a club to give him a guaranteed sum commensurate with his accomplishments.
The three-time All-Star, who still looks the part of a wrestling heel with his dyed black beard, told Lopez that his elbow was feeling good as he neared the one-year anniversary of his second Tommy John surgery. Wilson’s throwing sessions continue to go well, Lopez said.
But no, the three-time All-Star closer will not make good on last year’s public pledge to be ready by Opening Day – with the Giants or anyone else.
“I think he’s going to wait until he's fully healthy,” Lopez said. “Just kind of be in 'wait and see' mode. He won’t push himself until he’s locked in and ready to go.”
It’s easy to forget because he threw just 56 pitches last year before his elbow gave out in the sixth game of the season, but the Giants began last year hoping and believing that Wilson would be their rock in the ninth inning again. They only managed to scramble together an effective bullpen in his absence because Santiago Casilla converted 19 of his first 20 chances, and when he began to struggle with a blister issue, Sergio Romo stepped up and shut the door all the way to the last strike of the World Series.
The surest way to not miss someone is to find an effective replacement for them. The Giants bullpen found a way to replace Wilson’s innings with minimal turbulence last season.
It’s been well documented that Wilson and the front office didn’t see eye to eye when the club declined to tender him a contract, which would’ve meant guaranteeing at least $6.8 million to a pitcher who appeared in two games the previous year. Wilson is a polarizing figure, and by definition, those kinds of people are not universally loved. A reunion remains a longshot.
But Lopez said he didn’t think it would be awkward for the bullpen if Wilson and the Giants should happen to come to an agreement down the road.
“A lot of guys in here care about him and miss him for sure,” Lopez said. “I think if he came back, everybody would welcome him. Everybody just hopes he comes back at some point and is healthy and able to play. He’s important to people in this clubhouse.
“It’s easy for people to love him and it’s easy to hate him, and he embraces that. He’s one of the better competitors I’ve ever been around, so I’d like to see that again.”
Madison Bumgarner was hard on himself despite holding the Diamondbacks to two runs and striking out six (against one walk) in five innings of Wednesday’s 8-6 victory at Salt River Fields.
He’ll face lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu in the second game of the season Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
I asked Bumgarner: When do you start thinking strategically about how you’ll pitch to the Dodgers lineup, or have you already?
“I semi-started about a month ago,” he said.
Bumgarner also was asked if he was impressed by Brandon Belt, who hit his major league exhibition-leading eighth home run. Belt was standing just a few feet away from Bumgarner at the time, so the question mostly was asked in jest.
“I am,” Bumgarner said. “I just hope he doesn’t wait till the All-Star break to hit another one.”
A smiling Belt shot back: “I’ve accomplished all my goals this year. Now I get to go to San Francisco, where it’s even easier to hit home runs.”
Hunter Pence also homered in the victory, which clinched a winning Cactus League (15-14-4) for the Giants. He was supposed to get three at-bats but fouled a ball off his foot before the homer and was limping a bit, so manager Bruce Bochy took him out.
“You hit a home run, you get to come out,” Bochy said.
Good thing Bochy wasn’t enforcing that rule hard and fast. Pence’s replacement, Francisco Peguero, also hit a home run.
Buster Posey will catch Thursday and Friday, Bochy said. It’ll be Posey and Tim Lincecum working in concert against the A’s at AT&T Park on Thursday.
Tony Abreu, whose knee limited him to one game all spring, is staying behind in Arizona. He’s almost certain to begin the season on the disabled list. I’m not sure if surgery is being discussed at this point. Abreu is out of minor league options, but of course, players on the DL can go to the minors on a rehab assignment for up to 20 days.
Brett Pill, who has made a rapid recovery from his knee surgery, is staying behind as well. He’ll start jogging soon and is expected to join Triple-A Fresno just a few days into the season.
Bochy still isn’t ready to put Nick Noonan on the team, which tells you the Giants are still actively looking for more experienced backup infielders on the trade and waiver markets.
Noonan, once again, did his part to convince GM Brian Sabean to put the phone down. He was 3 for 4 and finished just a homer short of the cycle. His triple hit the wall in left-center and his double was down the right field line. He’s hitting lefties and righties alike.
“He played great, didn’t he?” Bochy said. “He’s really picked it up, especially with his timing. Against left-handers, against right-handers, he’s thrown out some nice at-bats.”
Noonan said his keys have been seeing the ball early and maintaining balance at the plate.
“Hopefully I can take this into the big leagues,” said Noonan, who is hoping to make his debut. “I did think about it earlier this week. But then I just told myself, 'Be confident and aggressive and picture myself how I played last year.' That’s what I did.”
Coaches are eager to see if Noonan can keep his composure and slow the game down when you add an upper deck and triple the size of the crowd. That’s why these final Bay Bridge exhibitions are a valid part of these last-minute evaluations.
Noonan will be relied upon for some pinch at-bats, and more importantly, to come in on a double switch and be able to make the plays. I don’t think he’ll need any more three-hit games to make the club. But the Giants want to see smooth, confident actions in the field over these next couple of games.
As I wrote the other day, it’s no coincidence that Heath Hembree is one of the guys from minor league camp selected to hop on the flight north to fill out the Bay Bridge series exhibition rosters.
The Giants really want to see how Hembree will handle pitching in that environment, because he’s likely to be thrust into it at some point this season.
Hembree was up and down earlier this spring, but he had a great fastball going in the ninth to close out the Cactus League finale. Bochy was impressed at how Hembree didn’t back down from pesky little Tony Campana, who kept flicking two-strike fouls. Eventually, Hembree threw a 3-2 slider that got him and Bochy very much approved.
“I tell you what, that was a nice job,” Bochy said. “He’s come on and I like where he’s at. This will be a good experience for him. I was hoping he would go to (the slider) a couple pitches earlier. But he got around to it, and that’s what I wanted to see.”
Thanks to Fresno announcer Doug Greenwald for letting me call one batter's worth of play-by-play on the Giants webcast. Aaron Hill helped me out by working a six-pitch at-bat, too. (Last time we did this, in 2008 or thereabouts, Kevin Frandsen grounded out on the first pitch. Thanks Kevin!)
I was going along fine and starting to remember my days announcing Northwestern games for WNUR. But my color man, Shawn Estes, responded to my question, ("Does Madison Bumgarner remind you of yourself in any way?") with a sparse NO. He ain't the best color man in the league for nothin' folks.
And then when Hill grounded out, I kinda sorta forgot that Todd Linden was playing first base. My call went something like this: "Sharply hit, Crawford a clean stop, up with it, fires to the first baseman ... whose name I don't know, and the inning is over."
Flem and Jon, your jobs are safe.
As much as everyone loves spring training in Scottsdale, it’ll be great to be home. Time to start my annual love affair with I-10 and I-5.
Enjoy the exhibitions and I’ll see you on Opening Day.