SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It’s not easy to simulate the pressure and stress of opening day, complete with the 50,000 hostile fans and the Dodgers’ mercenary lineup of all-stars.
It’s even tougher when you try to simulate that environment on a back field, throwing to minor league hitters underneath the batting cage – and look behind you to find a starting infield of first baseman Bruce Bochy, second baseman Tim Flannery, shortstop Shawon Dunston (Sr.) and third baseman (and regular bullpen catcher) Billy Hayes.
“Like a Hall of Fame game,” Matt Cain chirped. “Or Hall of Shame, more like it.”
Cain, who will take the ball April 1 at Dodger Stadium for his first career season-opening assignment, received his final tuneup in the most casual of settings. Rather than pitch against the San Diego Padres in the club’s last Cactus League home exhibition, Cain completed his work earlier in the day by facing minor leaguers in six simulated innings.
[BAGGARLY: Scutaro pulls a Little League trick on Padres]
His infielders? Well, their UZR rating probably earned a negative score. And his outfielders, from left to right, were none other than Madison Bumgarner, Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum.
The phrase “pitch to contact” comes to mind …
“The Gold Glove? I think I’d give it to Boch,” said Cain, after throwing 93 pitches. “He made some good picks.”
The Giants wanted Cain to work under simulated conditions so they could regulate his pitch count and give him manageable innings. He also wanted to work on spotting his fastball down and away to right-handers.
As for the rest, Cain just had to use his imagination.
“That right there is tough because you’re playing the game in your own mind,” Cain said. “You have to lock it in yourself. There aren’t the fans or any of the other things that help you lock it in. You have to try to go about it like any other day.”
It was serious work for Cain, but the others had fun with it. Bochy saved Dunston with a scoop just like Mark Grace did for all those years with the Cubs. Flannery made one error but redeemed himself with a running stop to his left. Zito and Bumgarner both made catches in the outfield.
“What a left fielder, huh?” Gregor Blanco said to reporters as he strolled past.
Nobody got into it more than Shawon Dunston, who needs to be reminded every spring by his wife that he retired a decade ago. Dunston crept to his left and right, positioning himself every time Cain went into his delivery.
“You’re giving pitches away,” Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti yelled at Dunston.
The minor league batters were Jackson Williams, Ryan Lollis, Juan Ciriaco and Todd Linden. None of them had the temerity to try to bunt for a hit. They must’ve not seen a recent scouting report on Bochy’s mobility at first base.
"It started off with me taking (pickoff) throws at first base," Bochy said. "Then we thought, `Aw, let's make it a little more realistic.' We didn't want to waste the athleticism of Billy Hayes, so we put him at third."
The session was serious for catcher Hector Sanchez, too. He was receiving for the first time since his sore shoulder recurred two weeks ago. He practiced pickoff plays and throws to bases during Cain’s simulated inning breaks. Most of the throws were off line, so he’s definitely got some work to do before opening day. But Bochy said the arm strength was encouraging enough to make Sanchez probable to start the season on the active roster.
The Giants wanted Sanchez to practice receiving throws from the outfield. But they didn’t want Bumgarner and Lincecum to heave them to the plate. So, mostly in jest, they asked them to throw with the other arm.
Lincecum, left-handed, wasn’t even close. He almost hit the screen behind the mound.
And when it was all over, Flannery let out a yell: "Everyone to the hot tub!"
Cain downplayed the opening-day start earlier this spring, but he does consider it an honor.
“It’ll be memorable for me because it’s the first time doing it with the Giants,” said Cain, who will oppose Clayton Kershaw. “It’s one of those spots you work to get to and it’s an honor to pitch opening day, but once the rotation goes around, it’s all the same. All five, all of us, feel we’ve got a chance to win.”
The pitching matchups are set for the season-opening series at the Ravine. The Dodgers decided to push back Chad Billingsley, and we’ve known for some time that pricy new addition Zack Greinke will be skipped at least the first time through the rotation because of elbow trouble.
So it’s going to be Hyun-Jin Ryu to make his major league debut against Madison Bumgarner on Tuesday, followed by Josh Beckett and Tim Lincecum on Wednesday.
Perhaps either Beckett or Lincecum will get an early start on that Comeback Player of the Year campaign.
I half-expected the Giants to hold back Lincecum to pitch in minor league camp on Thursday. Not so. He will face the A’s at AT&T Park.
With two lefties beginning the season for the Dodgers, it might be the third game before Gregor Blanco gets a start in left field. Andres Torres has hit lefties well this spring.
One more Cain anecdote:
He was told by trainers that some younger pitchers in camp were curious about his exercise routine between starts, but were too timid to ask.
“Am I not approachable?” Cain said, smiling. “I don’t want to be that way with those guys -- just with the media.”
Pablo Sandoval (right elbow neuritis) will start doing “light work” on Wednesday, and Bochy said he’s grown more optimistic over the last 48 hours that the Panda will be able to start at third base on opening day. Sandoval might take swings against a tee and/or play light catch.
Brett Pill was having a really good spring before his knee acted up and required surgery. He’s making rapid progress, though, and is hitting against a machine. He began taking grounders on Tuesday, too.
Pill estimated he would be ready in another 10 days or so. He’s likely to begin in Fresno, either on a rehab assignment or a straight option. But wherever he’s playing, he should be back on the field soon.
The Giants gave Brandon Belt his first start of the spring in left field and the results were predictable. One ball fell in front of his diving attempt after he got a bad read off the bat. You couldn’t expect him to be comfortable out there after not even taking fly balls all spring. (Belt had been prodding them gently to let him get some work out there, though.)
Buster Posey made an error at first base on an off-line flip to the pitcher, too.
I’m not sure the Giants will want to put Belt in left field often this season. But if he hits the way he did this spring, they’ll be tempted to go to those lengths to keep his bat in the lineup on days Posey plays first base.
In addition to the 31 players remaining in big league camp, the Giants will take a few more guys to San Francisco for the final exhibitions: Yusmeiro Petit, Heath Hembree, Jake Dunning, Nick Noonan, Joe Panik, Ehire Adrianza and Jackson Williams.
Only Noonan has a shot to make the club. The rest of those guys are there to cover innings.
But there’s more to this decision. It’s a nice feather in the cap to make that trip north, and for guys like Hembree, especially, it’s a chance to work out some of the butterflies that come naturally with pitching in a ballpark that holds 40,000 people.
It took all spring, but we finally had a Petit vs. Petit matchup. Yusmeiro got Gregorio, the Padres’ infielder, to pop to short on the first pitch.
Yusmeiro Petit has pitched in so many spring games as the understudy, I think he should have his own bobblehead day next March.
No pressure, but … with the Giants’ 4-2 victory on Tuesday, they are 14-14-4 this spring with one Cactus League game to go. It’s all up to Madison Bumgarner now.
ESPN’s Keith Law was kind enough to invite me to join him on his podcast to talk about Tim Lincecum. You can listen to our conversation here.
I went to the Comcast SportsNet Bay Area sponsors dinner the other night and the player representatives were Belt and George Kontos. It occurred to me … last year’s player rep was Chris Stewart – who was traded a couple days later. For Kontos.
Congrats to Brock Bond, who was elected the Harry S. Jordan Award winner for being the most outstanding Giant in his first big league camp.
This isn’t the kind of award that triggers an incentive clause. Last year’s winner, Dan Otero (who was claimed off waivers by the Yankees on Tuesday), received $20 in Starbucks cards as a bonus. Then he promptly informed the PR staff that he doesn’t drink coffee.