PHOENIX -– Madison Bumgarner paid a fine compliment to Joe Panik following the second baseman's first big league start Sunday afternoon, saying the 23-year-old kid had “a good baseball IQ.”
Panik's astuteness extends beyond the foul lines, too.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Panik, who collected his first big league hit and then watched Pablo Sandoval toss a decoy into the stands. “I’ve seen that trick before.”
It’s Panik who managed the best trick of all: join a first place team that had lost nine of 10 games, then go 2-for-2 in happy handshake lines.
Panik showed patience in his big league debut Saturday, when he drew a five-pitch walk off the bench and didn’t get doubled off second base on a line drive. He was just as poised in his first start Sunday, going 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and even showing some improvisation skills to make a play at second base.
Bumgarner took a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning as the Giants beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-1 to take two of three in the series.
And Panik hopped on the charter flight to San Francisco with a cache of souvenir “first” baseballs.
“Coming into a game and (joining) a team knowing how we’ve been playing lately, with a lot of losses, he might feel a lot of pressure,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said of his new double-play pal. “But he stepped up and got a big hit for us, and played great defense too.”
The play came in the sixth inning, when Ender Inciarte hit a slow roller to the right side. Panik charged it and used his glove –- which had been lost in a connecting city until it was delivered to the ballpark Sunday morning -– to flip it to first base for the out.
“I do work on that,” Panik said. “I played against him in the minors and I know he runs really well. That was my only play.”
Said Giants manager Bruce Bochy: “It looks like he can get a little creative out there, which is good. If you’re nervous, you probably don’t make a play like that.”
Panik also benefited from some familiarity with Diamondbacks right-hander Mike Bolsinger, whom he had faced in the Pacific Coast League. He grounded to first base in his first official at-bat before spraying a hit to left field for his first hit in the fifth. Panik was alert and aggressive, taking second base when left fielder Cody Ross bobbled the ball for an error. Panik scalded a lineout in the eighth as well.
But he had no history against sidearm left-hander Joe Thatcher in the ninth.
[RELATED: Panik arrives, but glove does not]
“Oh … no,” Panik said, with a wide smile. “That was a tough at-bat, I’m not going to lie. A tough lefty throwing behind me, throwing sidearm, I’m just trying not to bail out. Just try to spoil the good ones and get a pitch to hit. Fortunately I saw enough pitches to get an idea what he’s trying to do.”
He took an 0-2 pitch and served it over Ross’s head for a double.
“Great at-bat,” Bochy said. “Our report is he’s handling left-handers well down there. It’s a short stroke but he’s got some pop. It came off his bat well. It’s nice to have that in a left-handed batter who feels comfortable hitting lefties.
“He did a real nice job. He should be proud of this game. He really looked good out there.”
Among Bochy’s scouts at Fresno: his son, Brett, who made a spot start for the Grizzlies on Saturday.
“He’s telling me what a great job he was doing,” the manager said. “(Panik) has really gotten on track with his career. He’s a baseball player. Not one took stands out, but he knows how to play the game.”
For two months, everyone in a Giants uniform looked that way. Then came a good Nationals club, three horrific collapses against the Rockies, and a ragged turn through the rotation. Giants pitchers had combined for a 5.53 ERA in 11 games entering Sunday. Even after breaking a six-game losing streak here Saturday, Ryan Vogelsong was upset with himself for leaving with a 5-4 lead after five innings.
It’s going to take more clean turns through the rotation for the Giants to maintain or extend their lead in the NL West –- so when your ace allows just an infield single entering the ninth, that’s the best possible way to start some momentum.
“I thought it was really important because really, your season is usually determined by your starters and their consistency,” Bochy said of Bumgarner, who faced two batters in the ninth and was lifted after Crawford committed an error and Inciarte singled off Sandoval’s glove at third base.
“Our (starters) have done a great job but they’re human and they’ll hit bumps in the road. When a guy throws like Bum today, that’s huge for the club and good for the other starters, too.”
In Bumgarner’s first six starts, he allowed a whopping 45 hits over 33.2 innings. In his last 10 starts, he’s allowed 47 hits over 69 innings. What’s been the difference?
“Maybe I’m way off base here, but I felt early on there were a lot of ground balls that just were out of reach or there were a lot of broken-bat hits,” Bumgarner said. “You get those when you throw inside. I’d have to go back and really look, but I feel I’ve done a better job throwing away with all my pitches. So that could be part of it.”
Bumgarner’s fastball, curve and changeup were so good Sunday that it appeared first baseman Joaquin Arias’ failure to pick a throw in the second inning on Ross’s infield single might have been the only thing standing between the left-hander and a no-hitter.
“I’m not going to lie, I thought about it,” Bochy said. “The game was too close so I didn’t think too long about it.”
It stayed close until the Giants scored three runs in the ninth, with Panik’s double capping the rally.
So … does Bochy have a “collect two hits and an RBI in your first big league start, play the next day” rule?
“Yeah, that was just instilled today,” said the manager, smiling.
Panik’s cheering section might be smaller when he starts against the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park on Monday -– he had his parents, brother, two friends and his girlfriend in the stands here -– but the thrill will be almost as huge to play at Third and King. From the day he was drafted 29th overall by the Giants, he envisioned the day he’d play in front of a sellout crowd on the shores of McCovey Cove.
If his steady debut in Arizona is any indication, he’ll probably be all right.
“When you look up and you’re used to playing with one deck, and here there’s a roof … it’s totally different,” he said. “I was trying to stay within the moment, remember that you’re playing for something. You’re playing for the playoffs, so that helps you.”
If Panik had any lightness of being Sunday, it came after that first hit in the fifth. He was stranded at first base, Hunter Pence brought out his glove and hat, and gave him a handshake. Several other players stopped to offer congratulations on the way to their positions.
“Honestly, that’s when it hit me,” he said. “That’s when it really sunk in that I got my first hit. It was a special moment.”