Postseason star Gillaspie continues to work on becoming impact defender

Postseason star Gillaspie continues to work on becoming impact defender

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Conor Gillaspie will forever be remembered in San Francisco for his home run in the Wild Card Game and his ability to turn on an Aroldis Chapman fastball in the NLDS, but the skill that might mean the most for his career going forward was on display during a far quieter moment.

In the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS, Addison Russell pulled a fastball down the line. Gillaspie backhanded the ball as it took an awkward and high bounce, and he quickly set his feet, one on the dirt and one on the edge of the grass in foul territory at Wrigley Field. He fired a perfect strike across the diamond, nailing the young shortstop by half a step. 

Once viewed as a potential issue at third base, Gillaspie was a steady presence when Eduardo Nuñez went down late with a hamstring injury. Throw in the quick, clutch bat and you’ve got a player the Giants will count on as a key member of the bench going forward. 

“He played a real nice third base for us,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “That was the knock on Conor and it got to the point where they were calling him a liability, (but last year) it got to the point where he played a nice third base and was solid over there.”

Advanced metrics consistently showed Gillaspie as a below-average defender in his first stint with the Giants and later years with the White Sox and Angels. According to FanGraphs, Gillaspie entered the 2016 season with negative 30 defensive runs saved. Among the 35 big leaguers who played at least 1,000 innings at third base in 2014 and 2015, Gillaspie ranked 34th in defensive runs saved and UZR (ultimate zone rating). Last season, he was worth five defensive runs saved in 304 innings, and the rest of his defensive metrics crossed over to the positive side of the ledger, too. After making 14 errors in 2015, Gillaspie had just two last season.

“The eye test tells the story, too,” said bench coach Ron Wotus, who works with the organization’s infielders. “He’s using his feet better than in the past. He figured out the best angles to throw the ball. The most important thing is confidence as a defender, and he’s worked extremely hard and he sees the benefit of him continuing to do those things. It’s gotten to the point this spring where I need to back him off a little. He loves to take grounders out there.”

Wotus has a well-earned reputation for his work with infielders. He has helped develop talented players like Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik into Gold Glove winners. His daily work with Matt Duffy helped turn a shortstop into a Gold Glove finalist at third base in a matter of months. The front office never worried about third base in the offseason in part because of a belief that Wotus can help Nuñez grow at the position.

In Gillaspie, Wotus has found a player who is every bit the grinder he is. Gillaspie is famous for the amount of work he puts in in the cage, and on a recent day in camp, unable to throw because of some minor soreness, he instead spent most his time breaking in a glove with a mallet-like instrument. Working with Wotus has been a perfect fit. 

“His willingness to go out and work every day is unsurpassed by anybody that I’ve ever been around,” Gillaspie said recently during an interview that runs in full on our Giants Insider Podcast. “It’s almost like he’s a player. He wants to do it every day with you and to help you and to answer questions.”

Wotus identified minor fixes when Gillaspie returned to the Giants last spring, after getting released by both the White Sox and Angels the year before. He thought Gillaspie was often in-between on his throws, and he didn’t have his feet lined up correctly. Gillaspie can still be prone to an extra step or two, but he continues to get smoother over time. Basic drills are a part of every day at the park. 

“The big thing we talk about is catch, set, and throw,” Wotus said. “You don’t want to be in a hurry. Just field the ball, use the fundamentals. He’s bought into it and you see the difference.”

Wotus and Gillaspie focus on doing the simple things right during drills. The rest is instinct, as Gillaspie showed while tumbling over the dugout rail for a stunning catch during the final week of the season.

Gillaspie’s natural instincts at the plate should again make him a key part of Bochy’s bench. For all the drilling and cage work, you can’t teach a player to turn on a 102 mph fastball. Months later, teammates still marvel at Gillaspie’s ability to pull a Chapman heater into Triples Alley for a go-ahead triple in the eighth inning of Game 3. 

“As a right-handed bat, to handle that kind of fastball is tough. But a guy from the left side, you don’t see it very often,” Bochy said. “It takes a quick swing. It takes a guy with confidence, who wants to go in there and mean business. He saved our skin, because we lost Nuney. As his confidence grew, he really started to get his swing.”

Belt relates to Arroyo's benching in slump: 'It doesn’t need to be bad thing'

Belt relates to Arroyo's benching in slump: 'It doesn’t need to be bad thing'

SAN FRANCISCO — At this point Bruce Bochy has had plenty of experience working young infielders into his everyday lineup, so he knew exactly which move to turn to when Christian Arroyo dropped into a wicked slump.

With Arroyo hitless in his last 21 at-bats, Bochy sat him Saturday night against the Braves. His plans could always change, of course, but Bochy said he planned to sit Arroyo at least one more game. It’s a move he used most notably in 2013 to help Brandon Belt get back on track.

Belt was in a 1-for-19 rut when Bochy kept him out of the starting lineup for an entire series in Philadelphia. He had just one pinch-hit appearance, but he returned for the opener of the next series in Tampa Bay, notching three hits and a homer. Belt batted .346 the rest of the way.

Asked about that experience and Arroyo's current one, Belt at first made a different point.

“Arroyo has actually been really good for us,” he said. “That road trip we just had, we faced a lot of really good pitchers. There’s nothing for him to hang his head about.”

Belt has actually had several “clear your head” breaks over the years.

“It allows you to reset a little, and with the pressure, you can release that a little bit,” he said. “For me (in 2013) it forced me to make (mechanical) changes and when you have time off you see everything more clearly. You can make changes or go back to something that was working for you before. He shouldn’t look at this as a timeout. It doesn’t need to be a bad thing. You can make adjustments and it can be a good thing.”

Bochy originally planned to rest Arroyo on Thursday in Chicago, but Eduardo Nuñez’s hamstring needed a day. Arroyo started at second Friday against a lefty but got the full night off Saturday. With Conor Gillaspie sidelined for several more days by a tight back and Hunter Pence out the rest of the homestand, there's time for the Giants to contemplate what they want to do going forward.

“We’ll get this sorted out,” Bochy said. “We’ve (worked) him pretty hard. This is to give him a chance to catch his breath, get his mind right, and work on some things.”

With Bumgarner sidelined, Blach 'taking full advantage' of opportunity

With Bumgarner sidelined, Blach 'taking full advantage' of opportunity

SAN FRANCISCO -- At some point over the next four days, Madison Bumgarner will pick up a baseball, stand a few feet across from a member of the training staff, and simply play catch. It'll be a huge step in Bumgarner's rehab, and should it go well, a boost to the psyche of a struggling team.

In the meantime, another lefty is making sure the Giants don't suffer too much without their ace, as improbable as that first seemed.

Ty Blach took a shutout into the eighth Saturday night and in true Bumgarner fashion, he added a pair of hits and an RBI. The Giants beat the Braves 6-3. They've won Blach's past three starts, and even with a 10-run outing in Cincinnati mixed in, he has a 3.71 ERA since taking the spot left open by a dirt bike accident.

"Because of what happened he's in the rotation," manager Bruce Bochy said, "And he's taking full advantage."

Blach has shown that long term, he might be a big part of this rotation. It's been years since the Giants locked a young, cost-controlled starter in, and Blach has backed up his big cameo last year. It's possible -- likely even -- that at some point the Giants will need to trade a veteran, perhaps Johnny Cueto, for young bats. Blach provides needed insurance. 

Short term, he's providing a huge boost to a team that doesn't have much going right. Blach has thrown at least seven innings in his past four starts. He has allowed just eight earned runs in four starts since the one in Cincinnati, throwing 28 2/3 innings. 

"I feel good," Blach said. "I've always been a starter, so it's been a pretty easy transition to make. I feel comfortable."

The Giants are comfortable behind him, as evidenced by a half-dozen strong defensive plays Saturday. 

"He's been consistent and he works quickly," first baseman Brandon Belt said. "He's just a great guy to play behind."

Blach even joined in at the plate. He had an RBI single in his first at-bat -- his first big league hit off Not Clayton Kershaw -- and later roped another single. Blach even showed off his wheels, busting it from first to third on Denard Span's ball to the corner before Phil Nevin held him up. 

"I worked into some good counts and I was able to get fastballs," Blach said of his night at the plate. "It's definitely a big confidence booster when your spot comes up and you're able to drive in runs."

The night was straight out of Bumgarner's playbook, and it was needed. The Giants had dropped five of six, but Blach was backed by homers from Nick Hundley and Brandon Belt. It got a little hairy late, but the bullpen held on, clinching Blach's third win of the season. He looks poised for many more, and Bochy is happy to keep running him out there.

"I'm not surprised by what he's doing," the manager said.