Noonan: 'I definitely had to earn my spot on the team'
CHICAGO – The cold weather didn’t bother Nick Noonan in his first major league start. Must be that thick San Diego blood.
Noonan was a cool customer, all right, while contributing three hits in his first three at-bats from the No.8 spot in the Giants' 7-6 comeback victory. That included a hit-and-run single that isn’t always easy for a rookie to execute. And a single off a left-hander, Hisanori Takahashi, too.
Noonan also committed his first error in the first inning, but it was on a ball that deflected off pitcher Ryan Vogelsong and then a bounced throw that Brandon Belt probably picks most of the time.
When the Giants needed to start a double play afield in the eighth inning, Noonan didn’t hiccup. When the first grounder in the ninth came to him, he made the play.
“It was awesome,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “He didn’t seem nervous and just went about his normal routine. That ground ball in the ninth, he didn’t rattle at all. He made the play like it was 10-0 in the first inning.”
Noonan might keep picking up occasional starts at other infield positions, especially if Bruce Bochy wants to rest Pablo Sandoval or Marco Scutaro against a right-handed pitcher. It really helps that the Giants’ two backup infielders, Noonan and Joaquin Arias, swing from different sides.
Noonan will take fly balls in left field, too, but only for emergency situations when the Giants, who are carrying four outfielders, need coverage in the late innings.
Noonan is 5 for 11 with three strikeouts and a walk, and he’s showing the aggressiveness at the plate that Bochy likes.
“The few at-bats he’s gotten he’s looked very poised up there,” Bochy said. “This is a club that helps the young players to relax. He made a great adjustment this spring. He did a great job making us rethink our thinking that we didn’t need another utility player.”
Noonan didn’t have any immediate family in Chicago to watch his first start, but Bochy let him know ahead of time that he’d be in the lineup. So that helped him get mentally prepared, he said.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous but I had adrenaline going,” Noonan said. “It was nice starting the game, getting in my usual routine. It felt natural instead of going in the middle of the game.
“Everyone keeps telling me, `Stay the same, do the same thing you did in the spring.’ I haven’t changed a single thing since last year.”
Now would be a bad time to start.
And what about the cold? Did it bother the San Diego native?
"Only the footing," he said, of his mud-caked cleats. "It was like playing on ice skates."
The other day, I wrote that I was starting to come around to Bruce Bochy’s philosophy regarding the sacrifice bunt. He hates to give away outs under most circumstances, and more often, I am beginning to agree with him.
Well, another game situation came up today where the manager and I would’ve made different decisions. There are few absolutes in baseball and life, but I never, ever, ever, ever agree with letting the pitcher swing away with one out and the bases loaded. Just put on the take sign. Let a guy who’s paid to hit take a crack at it. No reason to risk hitting into a double play.
I can’t say I’m rushing to change my mind on this one, but Bochy did have Ryan Vogelsong swing away and something good did happen for the Giants. Vogelsong ended up drawing a walk to drive in the tying run. Maybe the fact he swung earlier in the at-bat compelled Hisanori Takahashi to try to do a little more than just lay pitches in there.
I asked Bochy why he let Vogelsong be a hitter up there.
“Because I’ve got confidence he can handle the bat a little bit,” Bochy said. “He’s gotten some hits. I know he can hit into a double play there, but he took some good swings and showed good discipline. That’s just the confidence I have in my pitchers here. They’ve done a good job handling the bat this year.”
That’s for sure. Giants pitchers are batting .333 (5 for 15) with three runs, four RBIs and a league-best seven sacrifice hits. Cubs pitchers have one sacrifice hit. The Mets and Brewers pitchers entered the day still looking for their first.
Vogelsong, a college shortstop at Kutztown University, tried to think like a hitter at the plate. He went up there with a game plan.
“I was really trying to see something up in the zone, maybe get a sacrifice fly, not hit a ground ball anywhere,” he said. “That’s the only reason I laid off those pitches. They were all down.”
What about Barry Zito, who is 5 for 8 over a four-game hitting streak, if you include his last two playoff starts? (He has two runs, three RBIs and four sacrifices over that span, too.)
“Spring training is overrated,” Bochy said. “He only had one at-bat all spring.”
The manager couldn’t resist adding one more thing: “With Zito, that’s a good thing. You can overexpose hitters like him.”
Brandon Crawford quietly had a very good game in the No.2 slot – RBI single, two walks, a hit by pitch and a productive out that moved the runner -- and he makes no secret that he enjoys hitting there.
“It’s just nice to be surrounded by good hitters, and I mean no offense to our pitchers,” Crawford said. “When they’re worried about guys stealing bases, you get more fastballs. And you’ll get more strikes with guys like Pablo and Buster and Hunter hitting behind me.”
If those pitchers keep hitting .333 and knocking in runs, though...
Good chance we see Heath Hembree in the big leagues when the need arises in the bullpen. Even though Hembree isn’t on the 40-man roster and guys like Jean Machi and Dan Runzler are, it sure seems like Hembree is sitting in the first chair.
“It looks like he’s really grown and matured as a pitcher,” said Bochy, who watched some of Fresno’s game on TV the other day. “He came up with a better breaking ball and command. Our hope is at some point this year when we need help, he’ll be ready.”
Bochy said in the spring that Hembree was short-arming the ball. He elaborated on that a bit.
“Rags did a good job getting him on track,” Bochy said, in reference to pitching coach Dave Righetti. “When he first came to camp he was really out of sync. I remember watching the first bullpen he took and he was completely different without even realizing it.”
I always felt Bob Howry was a good comp for Hembree and I mentioned that name to Bochy. He agreed. Tall, throws downhill, above average fastball and a slider that plays. That was Howry, and he had a lot of successful seasons as a late-inning reliever.
Gregor Blanco said he was uninjured after that scary diving attempt on the bullpen mound. The way he tripped, it looked like it could’ve led to something debilitating.
Belt bumped his arm on the brick wall while chasing a foul pop in the ninth, so he’ll be reevaluated.
It sure seems like April just isn’t Belt’s finest month. He played a rather uninspiring game overall, failing to pick that throw in the first inning and then that foul pop (a tough play) squirted out of his glove. He managed a single in five at-bats but the Cactus League’s leading home run hitter is off to a .156 start and it might be starting to weigh on him.
Angel Pagan made an impressive catch on Luis Valbuena that required him to run a great distance, predict what the wind would do and make an athletic adjustment on the fly.
The former Cub said playing here is like playing at AT&T Park. You have to check the wind constantly, and not pay too much attention to what the flags are doing. The wind aloft is different than the wind on the field.
“I felt I had a better chance than Hunter,” Pagan said. “That’s a situation where you cannot call for the ball. But I knew he could see me going for it. I just put my best effort and caught it.”
Pagan used a similar description for how the team was able to muster the energy after a late-night flight to come back from a five-run deficit:
“We have the right attitude: protect the lead or go get the lead.”