SAN FRANCISCO – “That’s how you win. You capitalize on the mistake of your opponent.”
A few years ago, Angel Pagan might have made that door-opening mistake. Now he’s the one uttering the quote.
In the final weeks of his 32nd year on earth, in his third season as a Giant and ninth in the major leagues, you can say this with no reservations about Pagan: he is a smart ballplayer. He is opportunistic. He balances aggression with strategy. He still has plenty of ability. Now he’s using it as proscribed by the scoreboard.
Michael Morse might have hit the walk-off single that sent the Giants to a 5-4 victory over the New York Mets on Saturday. But make no mistake, mental or otherwise: this was Pagan’s night to shine.
He reached base all five times. He hit the two-run single in the sixth that started the Giants’ comeback. And when a third strike bounced a few feet away from Mets catcher Anthony Recker in the ninth, Pagan did not scowl or toss his bat. He was too busy sprinting to first base.
“Right out of the box, hustling,” Morse said. “A lot of guys don’t do that. I strike out, I’m upset with myself. But he’s hustling and he gets on base.”
Then Pagan hustled 270 feet farther, scoring the tying run on Hunter Pence’s line double down the left field line. Morse followed with his 42nd RBI, second in the NL only to Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt. When someone in the celebration ripped his jersey, Morse decided to go all Lou Ferrigno and finish the job -- a fitting end to Comic Book Night at the ballpark.
The Giants have trailed after eight innings 20 times this year. They’ve come back to win three of those games. That's a remarkable 15 percent success rate. And Pagan loomed large each time.
On April 15 at Dodger Stadium, Pagan singled in the ninth off closer Kenley Jansen, scored the tying run on Brandon Belt’s double, and the Giants won in extra innings. On May 5 at Pittsburgh, Pagan had three hits, including the leadoff single that started a five-run rally in the sixth inning as the Giants came back after being down 8-0.
And against the Mets on Saturday, with the seagulls as restless as the sellout crowd, Pagan recorded his 24th multi-hit game – tying him with Troy Tulowitzki for the NL lead.
Pagan still has a deep reservoir of ability. The difference is that now, he understands how to deploy it.
“He’s just a complete player,” said Tim Hudson, who leaned on three strikeouts of Bartolo Colon in key spots to hold the Mets to three runs despite yielding 12 baserunners in his five innings. “He’s just become a very uncomfortable matchup for a pitcher.”
Pagan and Hudson go back plenty. They’ve faced each other 39 times (Pagan holds a .297 average). Cole Hamels is the only pitcher who has faced him more often in the big leagues. And Hudson sees a different player than that Cubs and Mets outfielder who often airmailed the cutoff man, got himself thrown out on the bases or struck out when his club needed a tough, situational at-bat.
“He really understands the game,” Hudson said. “That’s the progression you hope young players can make. That’s just understanding the smart way to play the game, and I think it’s fair to say he’s doing that. He’s one of the best we’ve got.”
Remarkably, Pagan entered Saturday as the fourth hardest player in the NL to strike out, at once per 8.6 at-bats. When he chased a pitch from Mets closer Jenrry Mejia in the ninth, he still saw an opportunity.
“Yeah, of course,” Pagan said. “That’s how we do it. That’s how we play.”
That’s how the Giants have to continue to play. Even with the major leagues’ best record, an obscene 9 ½ game lead in the NL West and a Dodgers manager who is calling out his players for not caring, there remain way too many furlongs to tick off. If a 162-game season were a Triple Crown race, it would be the Belmont. The pacesetters often fade. The best and strongest often do not win.
When you are the smartest, too? Well, the odds only get better.
For all the slights on those scouting reports earlier in his career, Pagan is a smart player now.
“It’s as simple as this,” he told me. “You learn from your mistakes. I made some mistakes earlier in my career and I’m grateful I made them, because I am a better player now because of that. A mental mistake can happen once but it can’t happen twice. I tried to learn from it and get better and that’s what happened to me.”
Let’s not forget one more thing. The team Pagan helped to beat Saturday night was the team that traded him away.
Perhaps that’s a mistake the Mets will learn from, too.