Blanco setting himself up for prime role with Giants

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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.

Giants put it together in all phases, get back in win column

Giants put it together in all phases, get back in win column

SAN FRANCISCO — In the bottom of the eighth inning Monday, with the Giants finally running away with one, Johnny Cueto started blowing into a giant wad of bubble gum. He held two hands out, ready to catch remnants of an explosion as Brandon Crawford and Kelby Tomlinson looked on and smiled. 

A few minutes later, players started migrating to the dugout rail as they have done in each of the three starts Ryder Jones has made. They are ready to cheer on a rookie’s first big league hit, even if the wait has been an excruciating one for the third baseman. 

Bruce Bochy likes to say that your personality is better when you’re winning, and his players certainly showed that Monday in snapshots here and there. They woke up to a report that there were fractured in the clubhouse, caused in large part by the new closer. They denied it, they met as a group, and then, finally, they won. 

Jeff Samardzija pitched as he has for two months, the top of the lineup came through over and over again, and Brandon Crawford paced a golden night with the gloves. A 9-2 win over the Rockies was just the second since June 11 and it snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Rockies. Any win is meaningful at this point, but this one seemed to mean just a little bit more given the drama of the day. 

“Despite what people might think, we still have a pretty good group here and we get along just fine,” Crawford said. “We’re all rooting for each other.”

It’s one thing to support teammates off the field, and there’s been no indication that the Giants aren’t doing that. It’s quite another to be hand-in-hand between the lines, and for much of this season, Samardzija has been on an island. 

The right-hander has been Bochy’s best pitcher since Madison Bumgarner went down in the hills outside Denver. But he entered Monday with a 2-9 record and 4.74 ERA inflated by faulty defense. He hasn’t grumbled, but he has grown accustomed to the worst, and when Nolan Arenado bounced a ball deep to the hole in shortstop with two on and two outs in the third, Samardzija figured the game was probably tied. 

“I’m thinking maybe they charge it in the outfield and maybe make a play at home,” Samardzija said. “But with a guy like that at shortstop, things change so fast.”

Crawford scooped the ball on the edge of the grass. He would have liked nothing more than to make an otherworldly throw to first to nail his World Baseball Classic teammate, but he knew the best chance was at third. A couple of days ago, Crawford and Jones discussed how the rookie should cover third on such a play. Jones played it perfectly, retreating in time to catch Crawford’s inning-ending throw. 

“The best thing (about Crawford) is he doesn’t even talk about it,” Samardzija said.

No, Crawford put the spotlight on Jones.

“That’s a pretty heads-up play,” he said. “We talked about it and he was there. It was a funny coincidence.”

The play held the lead, and the Giants kept pushing. The top four hitters in the lineup finished with 10 hits, six RBI and six runs. Brandon Belt had an RBI triple in the five-spot. Crawford drove in a run behind him. Gorkys Hernandez and Kelby Tomlinson added insurance from the bottom. Bochy watched it all from the top step and saw a group collectively relax.

“Just quit fighting it so much,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent in this offense. There’s no reason they can’t put consistent runs on the board. Tonight I just thought the at-bats were so much better and the focus was. Once it started rolling, guys felt better about themselves, and it just got contagious.”

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants' skid-snapping win over Rockies

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AP

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants' skid-snapping win over Rockies

BOX SCORE

SAN FRANCISCO — On a day that started with controversy, Giants players called a meeting following batting practice. Perhaps they were talking about when and where to stretch. Perhaps a reminder was given to keep clubhouse complaints in the actual clubhouse. 

Or, perhaps, the players just decided that enough was enough. 

In a rare display, the Giants put a clean and complete game together. They beat the Rockies 9-2 at AT&T Park, getting just their second win since June 11 and snapping a nine-game losing streak to the Rockies. 

Jeff Samardzija continued his hot streak, the lineup was opportunistic and flashed some power, and the defense sparkled at times. Here are five things to know from the throwback night … 

—- Samardzija walked off to a standing ovation after throwing 112 pitches. He was charged with two earned in 6 1/3 innings. Ignore the record and ERA for a second — his FIP is 3.37 and his xFIP is 2.95. He really is having a very good and underrated season. 

—- Here’s another one for your Samardzija file: Over the past two months, he has 82 strikeouts and three walks. 

—- It was a good day in the race for another Brandon Crawford Gold Glove. Adeiny Hechavarria, one of the few in the National League who even approaches Crawford, was traded to the Rays. Crawford added to the reel by gunning a runner down on third and making a nifty spin-and-throw in the fourth to rob Ian Desmond of a hit. 

—- There are nights where Denard Span looks like a game-changer, and this was one of them. He had a single, walk and triple in his first three plate appearances, scoring twice as the Giants built a 5-0 lead. He was spry in center, too 

—- Nolan Arenado was 0 for 4. Apparently that’s legal now. (It was actually his ninth 0 for 4 or worse against the Giants, in 81 games.)

—- Bonus sixth fact since the Giants won a game: Sam Dyson, acquired basically for free, is the new setup man. That didn’t take long, and it probably won’t be changing anytime soon. Dyson gave up a single but struck out the other three batters he faced.