SAN FRANCISCO — Santiago Casilla’s last at-bat in the big leagues brought about a wide range of emotions in the Giants’ dugout.
First there was horror, as Casilla grounded out to short at Coors Field and took off like Usain Bolt despite the fact that manager Bruce Bochy had seconds earlier warned him not to run. A couple of big steps in came the admiration.
“I will say,” a smiling Bochy said last week, “He was running well.”
Admiration quickly turned to fear when Casilla went down in a heap just beyond first base, with the first thought being that he had suffered a torn muscle that would end his 2014 season. That fear gave way to relief after an MRI, and Casilla ultimately missed only a month.
A year later, that ill-advised 90-foot sprint is used as a teaching point.
When young relievers join the staff and get an at-bat, they’re told of Casilla’s mad dash and given simple instructions: Don’t run hard. Often, that follows a more disappointing mandate: “Sorry, rookie, you’re not even allowed to swing.”
Hunter Strickland and Josh Osich both got that command from Bochy when he sent them up for their first big league at-bats this season. The no-swing policy did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm about grabbing a bat and digging in, though, and similar smiles appear on teammates’ faces when they’re asked about taking their cuts.
“Every time a relief pitcher gets an at-bat the rest of us get excited,” right-hander George Kontos said. “First and foremost, if a guy is on base and you have to try and bunt him over, you do your job. But other than that, if you get to swing, it’s always fun.”
Just as position players light up at the prospect of taking the mound in a blowout, relief pitchers look forward to the rare plate appearances. Here’s the thing, though: They haven’t been that rare for the 2015 Giants.
Through 124 games, the bullpen has totaled 23 plate appearances. You have to go back to 2011 (18 plate appearances) to find a recent season that even comes close, with Giants relievers getting 12, 14 and 13 plate appearances the last three years, respectively. Overall, Giants pitchers lead the majors with 278 plate appearances this year
“We know we’ve been hitting more,” left-hander Jeremy Affeldt said. “It’s a year to year thing, and this is definitely that year.”
There are different theories for why Bochy has told so many relief pitchers to grab a bat this season. One front office official pointed out that the Giants don’t have a set 7-8-9 trio in the late innings — like teams like the Royals do — so Bochy has had to be more creative about playing the matchups and getting an extra out from a reliever here and there. One player pointed to the short bench, which has consisted of just four position players most of the season.
But Affeldt and Javier Lopez both hit on the same point, and because they’re the only two relief pitchers who actually have their own bats, we should probably listen to them.
“I think the reason we’re hitting more is because — for one reason or another — the rotation is not getting as deep into games as usual,” Affeldt said. “They’re not getting as deep, and at the same time the games are close games where Boch doesn’t want to burn a position player. I don’t think he wants us hitting. It calls for it. The way our starters pitch, they don't give in. They don’t get blown out. If it’s a short start, the game is still usually close.”
This starting staff is full of grinders, and that means the bullpen often gets going in the fourth or fifth inning. That leaves Bochy with more outs to get from his relievers in games he still has a shot at winning, and if he likes the matchup coming up on his scorecard, he’ll let a pitcher go the plate and then come back out for a second inning on the mound.
“That’s part of it,” Bochy said. “If I have a double-switch to make, I’ll do it, but of course who is coming up matters. It’s nice to have the number of pitchers I have that go can go multiple innings.”
Affeldt has two plate appearances this season. The first one came when the Giants turned a two-run lead over the Dodgers into a six-run lead while he was on the mound, so Bochy let him hit (he struck out) and then got three more outs of Affeldt’s left arm. The second at-bat came earlier this month, and Affeldt was allowed to hit (he struck out) in the eighth because the Giants led by three and Bochy wanted him — not Sergio Romo — to face the left-handed-hitting A.J. Pierzynski in the bottom of the inning.
Javier Lopez retired three A’s in the eighth inning July 26, put down a sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the inning, and then prepared to face left-hander Ike Davis in the top of the ninth. On the last homestand, Osich was so sharp in the top of the seventh (retiring Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman) that Bochy sent him out to bunt in the bottom of the inning. Osich got it down, and returned to the mound to face the first four batters in the eighth before giving way to Romo. Lopez said this is a sign of Bochy playing the numbers and looking at splits, but also using his gut.
“It shows you the feel he has during a game,” he said.
Of course, Bochy doesn’t always feel great when a pitcher has a bat in his hands. He twice used Madison Bumgarner as a pinch-hitter on the last trip but later admitted that he fears a pitcher getting hurt at the plate.
“Oh yeah, we’ve had two get hurt,” he said, citing Casilla and Dan Runzler. “I’ll never forget Runzler. I don't know how you dislocate your knee swinging a bat.”
Casilla, who strained a hamstring during that sprint last May, is the only Giants reliever who hasn’t been sent to the plate this year, and that might not be a coincidence. In all, Bochy has gotten plate appearances out of nine different relievers (the most since 2012), with long man Yusmeiro Petit accounting for eight of the 23 plate appearances.
They have stayed healthy, and that means the relievers are free to poke fun at each other or themselves. As always, the main target ends up being Affeldt.
Bochy tells his relievers not to run hard so they don’t get hurt. Veterans warn younger players not to swing for the fences when they get their rare chance to hit. But there are exceptions to both rules.
“We tell Affeldt to swing hard and to run hard,” Bochy said, smiling.
Asked to name the reliever with the worst swing, a couple of the left-hander’s bullpen mates picked him — if only because the Giants always pick on Affeldt. But the talkative veteran does have bragging rights. Not counting Petit — who has been a starter for stretches of his career — Affeldt has the most hitting success of any Giants reliever. He’s 3 for 17 in the big leagues and when he struck out in his first at-bat this year he playfully complained that he was set up by Bochy so his career average would drop below .200.
“The first (hit) was in Colorado,” he said. “It bounced right off home plate and it stayed up in that air a long time. The second one was hit right up the middle. The third one was a swinging bunt.”
When it was pointed out to Affeldt that he has two career RBI, Bumgarner chimed in from the next locker. "And everyone in here could not be more aware," he said.
Ask a reliever if he remembers his best moments at the plate and you’ll immediately get a synopsis of the moment. Kontos recalled his two minor league doubles. Lopez not only remembers his lone hit, but also the fact that he was robbed of a second one on a poor call at first, and that he lost a couple sac bunts years ago because former Rockies teammate Charles Johnson was slow and would get thrown out at second.
Lopez is 1 for 11 in the big leagues but that RBI single in his rookie season held special meaning. He had come up in the Diamondbacks system before breaking into the big leagues with the Rockies in 2003. In a game against the Diamondbacks, with former minor league teammate Oscar Villarreal on the mound, Lopez hit a single to right that brought a runner racing home from second.
“He tried to sneak a piece of cheese by me,” Lopez said. “And I turned on it.”
Lopez then stood about four feet from first, afraid of getting picked off, but he’s not bashful about using his second big league at-bat as ammunition in clubhouse discussions. If a rookie position player takes a while to get his first hit, Lopez will joke that even he didn’t go hitless for long. Ryan Lollis was a recent target after starting his career 0 for 6.
Lopez doesn’t have a hit in the years since, but still enjoys the random calls to the plate.
“I see the ball clear as day,” the 38-year-old said. “But my hand-eye coordination isn’t there. You’re not able to execute.”
The 12-year drought at the plate hasn’t stopped Lopez from taking advantage of a bat company’s offer to provide new lumber every spring. When relievers take cuts in spring training, most grab from a garbage can full of recycled bats that has been around so long that Lopez recently spotted bats in there belonging to Jack Taschner and Vinnie Chulk, who last played for the Giants in 2008.
Every reliever gets his own shiny batting helmet, but only Lopez and Affeldt have their own bats. When Bochy calls, the rest pick up a random bat from the rack, usually one belonging to a non-Bumgarner starting pitcher. Clubhouse coordinator Brad Grems brings three bats on the road for each starter and has started bringing the Lopez and Affeldt bats, too. He’s now one short.
When Affeldt hit in Atlanta, he went to grab a random bat and was told that his own model was actually in the rack. A vicious swing sent that one into the stands as a souvenir about 30 seconds later.
Affeldt struck out later in the at-bat, adding to a mark the relievers wish was a little better: The bullpen doesn’t have a hit this season, showing just how hard it is to do that job after years of not even taking BP. The focus on just pitching leads to a gradual decline of other skills that made most of these guys two-way stars before they got drafted.
Lopez was a middle-of-the-order hitter at the University of Virginia and said he was a better hitter than pitcher. Kontos hit .494 with a dozen homers at third base as a high school senior, which apparently caught the eye of the Chicago Sun-Times. Kontos was named an All-State pitcher by the other three local publications but he remembers the Sun-Times’ Jay Mariotti selecting him as an All-State DH, not a pitcher, on the fourth list. Strickland played third and the outfield in high school, but he has just four plate appearances in the last eight years. He savors those moments, and when he was recently sent into the on-deck circle as a decoy, he couldn’t hide his smile.
“Obviously we all want to go up there and show out,” he said. “But realistically, we probably look like a fool.”
Do they? The Giants have the right man to decide. Bumgarner, who will win his second straight Silver Slugger Award this season, was asked to rate his relievers’ swings. He gave a quick answer — at first picking on Affeldt — and then a few minutes later walked over and changed his choice.
“I feel like they’re all equally bad,” he said.