Blanco setting himself up for prime role with Giants

707256.jpg

Blanco setting himself up for prime role with Giants

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Giants manager Bruce Bochy cant begin announcing his opening-day roster. Not with 18 days between now and the National Anthem at Arizona's Chase Field.

But ask himabout non-roster outfielder Gregor Blanco, and Bochy has a hard time containinghis excitement.

I cant give you anything definite, but I will say hesplayed as good a ball as anybody here this spring, Bochy said. Gregor hasreally swung it well, run the bases well. Were very excited about having him.

Samuel Morse couldnt have telegraphed it better.

A late injury or two can change the calculus. An unexpectedtrade discussion, too. But as it stands, Blanco, the speedy little 28-year-oldoutfielder from Venezuela, has earned a place with the 2012 Giants.

And maybe not just a place on the bench, either.

He leads the Giants with a .444 average (which also ranksseventh in the majors) and his seven stolen bases (in eight attempts) paceseveryone under the Florida and Arizona sunshine. He also ranks second in themajors with 10 runs.

Spring stats are meaningless, of course. But the manner in which Blanco is compiling them is not. He's scoring his runs in exactly the manner the Giantshope to support their pitchers this season always pushing for that extra base, whetherits going first to third, second to home or turning any momentary bobble intoan extra 90 feet.

Blanco didnt lose any momentum from the Venezuelan winterleague, where he was named MVP after leading all players in on-base percentage(.478), stolen bases (18) and runs scored (47) for Tiburones de la Guaira.

This is great for us to have him here, said young catcherHector Sanchez, who had his own banner winter for Tiburones to win the leaguesrookie of the year award. Hes the best leadoff hitter Ive ever seen.Everything he does, he does with energy.

Back in November, though, it was Sanchez and fellowVenezuelan Pablo Sandoval who brought the energy. They both made their ownrecruiting pitches to Blanco, who also was offered minor league contracts and spring training invitations from the Miami Marlins,Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies.

I knew the things he can do, Sandoval said. I see itevery year in winter ball. You know what? I told him, Youll get anopportunity with us. You can run, throw, hit and catch. We need a guy likethat. Hes getting an opportunity in spring training and hes working hard.

Hes a great guy, too. You need a guy like that on yourteam. Winning an MVP as a leadoff hitter thats tough to do, really tough. Im excited hes here.

How would Sanchez describe Blancos performance in winterball?

Oh, oh, extraordinary, the 22-year-old catcher said. I am sohappy hes here. I helped him make that decision. Its probably the bestdecision he could make.

Said Blanco: I knew they had a great group of guys. I knewId be playing for a good team. Hector, Pablo, they really supported me.Everybody told me Id like it here, Id like my teammates. And I always likedthis team. The Giants have a good history, especially as a winning team.

I think Im a winner. I wanted to be a part of it.

Given his huge winter, the Giants were lucky that Blancomade his decision in November. They didnt need to see him win an MVP award to knowhe could be an asset. Their Triple-A coverage scouts identified his athleticismand his ability to get on base, vice president Bobby Evans said.

It was easy to discount the .196 and .203 averages he postedlast year for the Triple-A affiliates of the Kansas City Royals and WashingtonNationals. For one, Blanco was playing with an injured left wrist that requiredsurgery in June. For another, even swinging one-handed, he still managedon-base percentages of .384 and .335.

Blanco recently examined a photo of himself in the battersbox for Omaha. He was choking up three inches on the bat.

Thats the only way I could hit, he said. Its very hardto play like that. I never realized how much it would affect me.

Triple-A pitchers knew he was hurt, too. Yet Blanco stillfound a way to get aboard. Now that hes healthy, its been hard to keep himoff the basepaths.

I really feel good about myself, Blanco said. I had theinjury and I came back. Thats the biggest improvement. I really work hard forwhat I try to do. Last year, I lost 20 pounds. Now I am the kind of player Iwant to be.

Blanco, a left-handed hitter, still swings and misses with alarming frequency. Itsone of the major reasons he didnt stick with the Atlanta Braves, who developedhim and gave him an opportunity in 2008, when center fielder Mark Kotsay wentdown with an injury. Blanco ended up playing in 144 games, hitting .251 with a.366 on-base percentage in just more than 500 plate appearances.

He feels he is a smarter, more aggressive player now.

Bochy is letting me play and I really appreciate it,Blanco said. I always wanted to have that with a manager or a team. InAtlanta, it was different. They gave me an opportunity to play in the bigleagues and I really, really appreciate that always. But I was always stopped.I always believe I could steal bases.

Although the Giants will face a roster crunch, as every teamdoes every spring, its become clear that they need a true fourth outfielderbehind Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan and Nate Schierholtz especially given Paganand Schierholtzs reputations for coming down with nagging injuries.

Pagan hasnt exactly dazzled this spring, either. And youdont have to delve too far into Giants history to find a non-roster invitee(Andres Torres) eventually taking a starting job from an established,higher-salaried player (Aaron Rowand).

Theres still 18 days go. For Blanco, thats just 18 more opportunities to put his game on full display.

The way Im playing now, I think this is me, he said. Itfeels great.

Barry Bonds: Returning to Giants 'what I'm supposed to do'

Barry Bonds: Returning to Giants 'what I'm supposed to do'

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Barry Bonds is on Twitter and Instagram, but he said the only social media app he truly embraces is Strava, a network for running and cycling enthusiasts. You can keep track of his passion for cycling there, Bonds said, and it’s never hard to know where he’s been or where he’s headed. 

The Giants hope that app shows frequent rides to AT&T Park for years to come. A day after he was announced as a special advisor to CEO Larry Baer, Bonds officially joined the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium.

“It’s my home,” he said. “I want to be back at home. I want to help our community, our team, San Francisco, the Giants, the younger guys and younger players. You keep the tradition alive. It’s the same thing my father has done, my godfather has done, (Willie McCovey) has done. It’s the right thing to do. I’m in San Francisco, raised there, and I want to help our community kids become Giants, and good ones.”

The process started Wednesday, with Bonds kicking off a weeklong run as an instructor. In his opening hours, he made it clear that this is what his passion is, seemingly closing the door on another stint in a more involved role. His time as Marlins hitting coach lasted just one year, and Bonds said he “likes this role better.”

“I want to help out the whole organization,” he said. “I want to help the younger guys that are coming up through the organization and the guys who are here in the organization. I like this role better, to stand with the coaches. I’m here for whatever Bam Bam (Meuelens) wants me to do. If he wants me to do something or he thinks there’s a player I can talk to, I go based on that.”

Bonds said he took the job in Miami because he felt that was what his father would want him to do. “You go in the dungeon with everyone else,” Bonds said. He said he’s grateful that the Marlins gave him the opportunity, and while the reviews were mixed, Bonds found some highlights in his time there. He said Wednesday that he took part in a hitting contest one day because the team opposing Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich needed one more bat. Bonds and Stanton, currently the most powerful player in baseball, tied in home runs. Bonds, the all-time home run king, won in a tiebreaker round.

“If you challenge me,” Bonds said, smiling, “You will lose.”

Hundreds of pitchers found that out over his 22 seasons in the big leagues. Bonds holds Major League records with 762 career homers and 73 in one season, and he retired with a .444 on-base percentage, 2,935 hits, 1,996 RBI and 514 stolen bases. He is a 14-time All-Star and seven-time National League MVP, but his Hall of Fame candidacy has been dogged by a steroid cloud that has kept other sluggers of his era from induction. Bonds made progress last year, getting to 53.8 percent, but he has only five more years to bridge the gap to 75 percent. Asked about the Hall of Fame results on Wednesday, Bonds said he doesn’t have any answers that are different than what he’s said in the past.

“To keep talking about it doesn’t do any good,” he said. 

At AT&T Park, there’s no doubt about the level of support Bonds will receive. He remains wildly popular, and his return to the organization is expected to be followed in short order by a Wall of Fame ceremony and the retiring of the No. 25. At some point, Bonds is expected to get a statue outside the park. 

For now, he’ll focus on being an ambassador and instructor. He said he will attend the annual Play Ball Luncheon later this month and any other events the Giants put on his schedule. He lives within walking — or biking — distance of the ballpark, and said he can be in the clubhouse in under 10 minutes if his assistance is needed. If the Giants ask him to visit Double-A Richmond or Low-A Augusta, he's up for it. 

“Sometimes you need to get away from the game as a player and regroup and think about all that’s gone on and what’s gone on around you,” he said. “You need time to mature and realize what’s best for you, and I’ve been away now for quite some time. I had the opportunity to coach the Marlins and stuff, and I really feel like this is what I’m supposed to do.”

Team USA beats Japan 2-1, advances to first WBC title game

posey-gregerson-teamusa-japan-usatsi.jpg
USATSI

Team USA beats Japan 2-1, advances to first WBC title game

BOX SCORE

LOS ANGELES -- Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Nobuhiro Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones' grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the championship game of the World Baseball Classic for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.

Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.

The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never made it.

The Americans only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009. But this All-Star-laden roster has won two straight elimination games to earn the chance for its first crown.

Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense on a rain-soaked night at Dodger Stadium, where an intermittent downpour kept fans in ponchos.

McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth inning moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.

Japan won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the semifinals in 2013.

Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before U.S. manager Jim Leyland went to his bullpen early and liberally. His sixth reliever, Luke Gregerson, pitched a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.

Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.

A light, misting rain started falling several hours before game time, forcing the teams to take batting practice indoors while a tarp covered the infield. The rain eventually soaked the playing field and forced grounds crews to tend to the infield dirt between innings.

But the WBC couldn't really afford a rainout day, given its tight schedule in the final weeks of big league spring training.

Leyland kept a lineup with eight All-Stars, making only one change from the team that beat the Dominican Republic on Saturday to avoid elimination. Buster Posey was behind the plate, continuing his alternation with Jonathan Lucroy, apparently in accordance with their major league teams' wishes.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.

"He's a big league pitcher," Leyland said before the game.

But Sugano was matched by Roark, who had given up three runs over 1 1/3 innings in his only previous WBC appearance. The Washington Nationals right-hander was largely outstanding against Japan, giving up just two singles and a walk and hitting a batter with a pitch. After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.

McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.

Kikuchi atoned for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones' fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.

Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.

Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.