Programming note: For comprehensive Giants-Cardinals NLCS coverage, watch “October Quest” tonight at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
ST. LOUIS – Joe Panik did not drop out of the sky, but he did come from a place called Hopewell Junction.
It is 60 miles north of Manhattan. Its name conjures rock candy and lemonade springs, and all manner of fantastic notions. It does not get more fantastic than this:
The Giants will play the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS for the second time in three seasons. In 2012, their second baseman, Marco Scutaro, blistered 14 hits in 28 at-bats to win series MVP honors. This time, they’ll start a second baseman that has played 73 regular-season games in the big leagues.
The Giants do not look at this as a bad thing.
“Why would I worry about him?” right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said. “He hasn’t given us a reason to worry.”
In a rematch of grinding, contact-oriented clubs, the Giants’ rookie second baseman might be the best player on both rosters at putting the bat on the ball. He hit .305 after a late July call-up from Triple-A Fresno. He drove in a run on an 0-2 pitch in the Game 4 NLDS clincher over Washington.
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He has 24 at-bats in the postseason. He has yet to strike out.
“I expect him to come up in some big spots for us,” said Posey, who was NL Rookie of the Year when he led the Giants to a World Series in 2010. “I mean, I haven’t seen a situation he seems intimidated by.”
Posey would know. Standing in the on-deck circle, he gets the best views of Panik’s at-bats.
“He’s a guy you like near the top of the order,” Posey said. “He’s very quiet. He doesn’t jump at the ball, and I know as a catcher, those kinds of at-bats are tough because there aren’t a lot of holes to exploit.”
Vogelsong made a similar point: “His swing is pretty simple. He doesn’t really try to do too much. He looks to me like he just tries to get the barrel to the ball, and those are the guys that are the most dangerous to a pitcher because they won’t get themselves out.”
Postseason pitching is all risk assessment and avoidance. If a hitter has a weakness, you’ll see pitchers pound and pound that frosty blue part of the zone until they get the result they want. You lay one in there in mid-May. Not October.
That’s one reason the Giants have been able to scratch enough runs to advance past three hard-fought NLDS opponents in the past five years. Of the nine required victories over the Braves, Reds and Nationals in those best-of-5 rounds, seven of those wins were one-run games.
It helps to have hitters like Pablo Sandoval who can turn a pitch in the dirt or at his neck into an extra-base hit. It helps to have a Hunter Pence, who can beat you with an infield chopper or a 450-foot home run. And more than anything, it helps to have a No.2 hitter who moves runners, gets on base and exercises magnificent bat control.
Nobody did it better than Scutaro, who routinely ranked at or near the top in lowest strikeout ratio. But he played in just five games this year, and it was a desperation shot at that, because of a chronic back and hip condition that left him with no rotation in his swing.
After squeezing all the tater juice out of Brandon Hicks and even experimenting for 72 hours with Dan Uggla, the Giants turned to Panik – a player that even GM Brian Sabean acknowledged wasn’t ready to face big league pitching.
Except he was.
“Well, he’s shown that from Day One, since he was called up,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “I said from the get-go, he really looked comfortable and that he belonged up here. And then as the season went along and the games became more meaningful, he was the guy, I think, that was probably as consistent as any hitter we had.
“Not just offensively but defensively, he’s been as consistent as any player we’ve had through early postseason play. He’s just so mentally tough and his game isn’t complicated.”
Toughness counts. Scutaro showed plenty of that in the NLCS two years ago, after the Cardinals' Matt Holliday steamrolled him at second base. Scutaro shocked the trainers by returning to play in Game 3, he never stopped spraying hits and then the Giants sprayed some more.
Panik didn’t have many firm memories of watching the 2012 NLCS, when the Giants rallied behind Barry Zito, Vogelsong and Scutaro to win three consecutive elimination games and claim the NL pennant. That’s because he was busy playing in the Arizona Fall League at the time.
But Panik did spend a lot of time in spring training that year, and last season as well, watching Scutaro’s at-bats.
“Just how he approached hitting in the 2 hole, and that goes a long way,” said Panik, who made some changes to his swing mechanics early this season at Fresno, and adjusted to wearing contact lenses for the first time. “Just watching how patient he is, how he moved runners and got on base. I did a lot more watching than talking.
“I try to pattern myself as a typical 2-hole hitter. I’m not hitting too many home runs, but I’m going to try to get on base and go the other way and see the ball deep. If you can get on base for the middle of the order guys, all it takes is one big hit.”
Panik didn’t stand out in his two big league springs with the Giants. A hamstring injury knocked him back to minor league camp before coaches had any chance to evaluate him last year. This spring, the Giants reassigned him March 7 – a full three weeks before breaking camp. Clearly, they didn’t envision him contributing this season.
“I know I hadn’t seen enough to know or to predict this,” bench coach Ron Wotus said. “We always felt he had outstanding makeup and that can come into play when guys get to this level. But you’re right, we hadn’t seen a lot of him.”
When Panik made his debut, waking his parents in New York at 3 a.m. and immediately relieving them with good news, he had a few hiccups. There were a couple of double-play feeds that dropped out of his glove. Wotus chalked that up to nerves, and noted that there hasn’t been one of those gaffes for some time now.
“He hasn’t been here a week or three weeks,” Wotus said. “He’s already proven himself. It’s not a whole year, either. But he doesn’t give me any hesitation that he’ll be able to handle this spotlight.
“You know what he’ll be? He’ll be Joe Panik.”
The Giants didn’t stay on the field for long during Friday’s workout in anticipation of Game 1 Saturday between Madison Bumgarner and Adam Wainwright. But given the challenging weather, they got more work done than expected.
Panik took grounders and turned pivots, and made it all look smooth on a wet field.
A little rain never bothered a Giants second baseman in the NLCS, did it?