LOS ANGELES – Forget the contract drive. Put aside the walk year. Stop wondering if Pablo Sandoval has million-dollar signs blinding him at the plate.
Sandoval is facing a whole different kind of pressure now, and the vise is getting tighter. Brandon Belt is out for six weeks, at least, with a broken thumb. The Giants already had a hole in the middle of their lineup, where Sandoval was hitting .173. Now they have a Belt blowout.
There’s no getting around it, as Bruce Bochy often says. The Giants need Sandoval now.
“Well, yeah, we do,” said Bochy, who took Sandoval aside during the Giants’ 6-2 loss at Dodger Stadium on Saturday. “We’ve got to get him going. We’ve got to get him to the point where he’s just getting good swings off. I told him, `Don’t worry about results. Just get a good swing.’
“I go back to last year when we lost (Angel) Pagan, or how we dealt with the Melky (Cabrera) incident. Somewhere, you’ve got to pick it up, and if Pablo can, he’ll soften the blow of losing Belt.”
The Giants cratered after losing Pagan. They soared after losing Cabrera. Which way will they go now?
At least they stand in a good place, with a 23-14 record that ranks as the best in the National League. But they’ve seen how swiftly that can be given back. They were five games over .500 when they lost Pagan on May 25 of last season, and ended up 10 under, narrowly escaping the NL West cellar.
Belt is a core part of the lineup, but he’s easier to replace than Pagan. Michael Morse could borrow Buster Posey’s first baseman’s mitt as early as Sunday. The Giants could get Hector Sanchez’s bat in the lineup more often. Maybe Tyler Colvin can conjure a little bottle lightning.
But perhaps it’s less important to consider who will replace Belt at first base. Reconfiguring the lineup without him will be Bochy’s toughest task. And that’s where they are no longer just hoping that Sandoval comes around. They're desperate for it.
Sandoval struck out on a challenge fastball from Zack Greinke to strand the bases loaded in the first inning. He grounded into a 1-6-3 double play with two on and one out to end the fifth.
Want some shock and awe? Sandoval has not recorded an RBI in his last 20 games. He’s 2 for 26 with runners in scoring position. He has come to bat with 86 runners on base and driven in four of them.
When hitting with two strikes, he is 2 for 60 (.033) with 29 strikeouts – unfathomably bad for a talented hitter whose plate coverage ranks among the best in the major leagues. Perhaps the least surprising stat is that Sandoval has chased a greater percentage of pitches out of the zone (42.6, entering Saturday) than anyone in baseball.
That approach always worked for him. It doesn't work now. He has four errors and six RBIs.
Bochy wants Sandoval to let it go -- the at-bats to this point, the stats glowing on the scoreboard like critical-condition biomarkers, and especially his swing.
“It’s OK to get set early and let it go,” Bochy said. “Pablo’s hurting, I know. He wants to do well. He cares about this club and wants to help the club. And we’re going to stay behind him.”
For now, anyway. There’s only so much set design you can do to hide an elephant in the room.
Sandoval has insisted all along that his impending free agency hasn’t weighed on him. But what about producing for the team? What about stepping up in Belt’s absence?
“No, no. We’re nine guys in the lineup,” said Sandoval as he walked to the team bus. “It’s not about just one guy. It’s about everyone doing what they can. It’s a team and we all do the best we can as a team.”
How is Sandoval dealing with the deepest funk of his career?
“It’s a tough moment for me but you’ve got to keep your head up,” he said. “If you don’t help with offense, then play good defense. Do something to help your team. Just keep working hard and do the best I can to find a way to get that swing in the cage and take it to the game.
“It’s tough sometimes. I get out of rhythm. I’m doing the best I can to be consistent.”
Winning masks a lot of issues. Even in a loss Saturday, it wasn’t all Sandoval’s fault. Hunter Pence popped up against Brian Wilson with the bases loaded, too. Greinke, the pitcher who foiled Sandoval twice in RBI spots, set a modern major league record by allowing two runs or fewer for a 20th consecutive start. The defensive lapses behind Matt Cain happened in left field and at catcher.
Even Dee Gordon’s tiebreaking double in the seventh inning, which Sandoval couldn’t knock down, came with the third baseman playing two steps onto the grass. That’s on left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, who fell behind Gordon. If Affeldt gets ahead, Sandoval moves back. If he doesn’t have to defense the bunt, he probably makes the play.
The Giants should know more about Belt's broken thumb on Sunday. He's getting examined back in San Francisco and they should be able to refine that six-week recovery estimate. But they already know they'll be without him long enough to crater or to soar.
And they know Sandoval can’t be dead weight any longer.
Giants notes: Hector Sanchez took two vicious foul tips and dropped several balls, including a foul pop near the screen before Hanley Ramirez drew a key walk in the fifth inning. He underwent concussion tests and will be examined further but said he was fine. “I don’t think it’s a concussion,” he told reporters. “I remember my name … Gregor Blanco.” … Michael Morse could start at first base as early as Sunday, but he doesn’t have his first baseman’s glove. He said he considers it a bad omen to take it on the road. “Then something like this happens and I look like an idiot,” he said. Morse will borrow Buster Posey’s glove if needed. Morse had an odd reaction, though, when asked about playing the position. “I don’t know. I guess you guys know more than me. I played left today. I guess it’s no big deal to me.”… Javier Lopez has pitched once in the last 12 games, but Bruce Bochy insisted the left-hander was fine and would have entered Friday’s game if it hadn’t been a save situation. … The Dodgers played an old timer’s game after their victory, and to their great fortune, Tim Hudson already was scheduled to pitch Sunday.