SCOTTSDALE -- The improbable and thrilling Tortoise Race has run its course, but Joe Panik and Matt Duffy aren't done with friendly competition.
Panik, who hit .312 in his first full big league season, is ready to go up against Duffy in a battle to see who piles up more hits. Duffy batted .295 last year and hit .313 or better in three consecutive summer months as he took over the third-base job.
“For our style of game, that type of race would be a little more fun,” Panik said. “I think both of us, if we stay within our approach, can really have an actual tight race. We should be up there in hits.”
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Panik proposed a competition that should be a dead heat if last year's results hold up. He had 119 hits in 100 games during a year cut short by a back injury, a pace of about 193 over a full season. Duffy had 169 hits as a rookie, but if you look at his numbers from the day he became the starting third baseman (May 24, when Casey McGehee was designated for assignment), Duffy was on pace for 192 hits.
“He’s going to go on runs where he gets nine hits in three days and I’m going to do the same thing, hopefully,” Duffy said. “I think it’ll be fun to watch.”
The Hare Race will be a daily one, unlike last year’s homer race when the two infielders could go weeks without putting a dent in the standings. The Tortoise Race first popped up last June as two players who were never known for power in college or the minors started hitting bombs. After Duffy hit his fourth homer to tie Panik, the second baseman joked that their competition “isn’t exactly McGwire-Sosa.”
"It’s like the tortoise and the hare,” Panik said. “Except both of us are tortoises.”
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Duffy hit his fifth a week later. After taking his trot, Duffy found Panik and offered to take a break from going deep so the second baseman could catch up. Panik tied him an inning later.
As Duffy continued to put himself on the map late into the year, Panik’s power was sapped by a stress fracture in his back that cost him most of the final two months of the season. Panik is again 100 percent healthy, a constant smile on his face as he goes through drills pain-free. A year after fighting to make the Opening Day roster, Duffy looks locked in at third base for years to come. Manager Bruce Bochy hasn’t put out a lineup yet, but Panik is the likely No. 2 hitter and the staff continues to discuss keeping Duffy in the three-hole or swapping him into Panik’s spot for the right matchup.
The possibility of Panik and Duffy competing to see who can get on base most often in front of Buster Posey is a tantalizing one.
“Stuff like this that makes the team better is fun,” Duffy said. “With the home-run race, it doesn’t necessarily make us better as a team because that’s neither of our games. You can argue that Joe and I, at least, are worse if we’re trying to hit homers. But a hits race, I know the guys behind us will appreciate that.”
Said Panik: “I take pride in getting hits, and my job is to get hits and let Buster and Hunter and Belt and Craw do the big damage.”
The Giants have always felt that both players would hit for more power than projected, which is part of what made the Tortoise Race so much fun. But that’s not their identity. Panik’s swing is so level that he feels just as comfortable hitting with two strikes as he does with none. Duffy found success by simplifying the game, focusing on process over results: See the ball and put a good swing on it.
“They’re both so good at being able to shorten their swings and use the whole field,” Posey said. “It’d be easier (to pick a winner) if one was more pull-centric, but they both take such a good approach.”
Posey actually led the Giants in hits (177) last year, but at the start of the season Panik was the one on the prolific pace. He was third in the National League with 101 hits before the All-Star break. After the break, only two National Leaguers had more hits than Duffy’s 92. If either player puts it together for a full year, the Giants could have their first 200-hit season since Rich Aurilia in 2001.
Both players mentioned 200 hits as a personal goal, but only after reiterating that the team’s goals come first. Hitting coach Hensley Meulens doesn’t mind a good chase at the plate, though. The Giants have a season-long game where veterans pick teams and players earn points for coming through in different in-game situations.
“I love competition ... you can only do so many drills,” Meulens said. “That’s all we do all day is compete. We’re out there (on the back field) at 7:15 a.m. and all we do is compete.”
A good race can keep the juices flowing during a grueling season.
“It just kind of keeps you going a little bit so it doesn’t get stale,” Panik said. “The main goal is to win every night, but when you play 162 games it’s always good to have a little fun in there and a little competition within ourselves, so you don’t give away any at-bats in those blowout games when you’re up by 10 runs in the eighth inning. It keeps you mentally focused. Me and Matt have a good relationship, and it’s going to be fun going back and forth.”
“Competition between teammates is not a bad thing," Duffy added. "It’s pushing both guys to be better, and that’s never bad.”
Panik and Duffy weren’t the only ones nudging each other last year. Posey and Brandon Crawford talked of trying to reach 100 RBI first, and Crawford rarely missed an opportunity to needle Posey about the team’s home run chart. He finished with a career-high 21, while Posey hit 19.
“That’s the only year he’s (talked about) that for some reason,” Posey said Monday. “It’s interesting that he didn’t really do that the past four or five years.”
The ribbing will surely fly between Panik and Duffy as the season starts, but on Monday the interest was in handicapping the race. Meulens said Panik has the edge because he hits left-handed. Brandon Belt seemed to give Duffy the advantage when he joked that Panik needs to stay on the field. Crawford, the man who plays between Panik and Duffy, had a hard time picking a side of the diamond.
“There are arguments for both sides,” he said. “For Joe, the downside is there are a lot of good left-handed pitchers in the division. But I think he gets more at-bats.”
Posey found a tiebreaker.
“I’ll give the edge to Joe, just to light a fire under Duffy,” he said. “I like to pick on him.”
All parties agreed that it’ll be a good thing if this is still being talked about in September. That’ll mean both young infielders have stayed healthy and productive.
“It’s going to be between five to 10 hits over the course of 162 games, I think,” Panik said. “Obviously I think I’m going to win and he’ll think he’s going to win.”
Duffy confirmed that sentiment.
“I’m definitely going to take myself as well. I’m taking myself, for sure,” he said, smiling. “I think it’s going to be a good race.”