Unreal? Giants offense backs Hudson in home-opening win

Unreal? Giants offense backs Hudson in home-opening win
April 8, 2014, 8:00 pm
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I feel we have the right kind of hitters for this ballpark. We have guys who hit it on a line. Plus we know what it’s like to hit here and we’ve dealt with it.
Brandon Belt

SAN FRANCISCO – Hey Brandon Belt, are you a believer in Sabermetrics and other advanced stats?

“Well, the ones that make me look good, I guess,” he said.

Maybe you like to crack open a refreshing can of RC+. Or maybe your preference runs more toward big, beefy ribeyes. Doesn’t matter. All the stats look good on Belt now. All the stats looked good on just about everyone in the home dugout as the Giants welcomed back 42,166 of their closest friends, and Bat Kid, to China Basin with a 7-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Belt’s homer was his NL-best fifth of the season and the Giants’ major league-leading 12th in eight games. But the two-run shot in the first inning didn’t make the difference on its own.

It still took Hunter Pence stealing his way into scoring position in the third inning, then running 180 feet to score on a single to Gold Glove right fielder Gerardo Parra. It took Michael Morse coming through with that two-run single on a two-strike, two-out pitch. It took Brandon Crawford hitting another two-run single on another two-strike, two-out pitch in the fifth. It took Gregor Blanco, pinch-running for Morse at exactly the right time, running those same 180 frenetic feet against that Parra’s same golden arm and beating the throw home.

And it took the most important component, a quality start from Tim Hudson, who joined Morse in making his Giants home debut a cozy one.

The home runs are great. But they’re like the 19th Avenue bus line. You can’t always count on them to be there when you need them. That’s especially true at AT&T Park, where the combination of breeze and brick confounds many a hitter. The Giants hit 44 home runs in San Francisco last year. Only the Miami Marlins hit fewer in their home ballpark.

“I mean, yeah, you're right” said a smirking Crawford, “even though, you know, we’re kind of leading the league in that. But sure, it’s tough to win games when you’re sitting back waiting for home runs.” 

Let’s face it: Does anyone really think the Giants will lead the NL in home runs this season? While it’s clear they have more power potential with Morse, a stronger Buster Posey, a thinner Pablo Sandoval, a re-signed Hunter Pence and an emerging Belt, the power numbers should level out over the seasonal floodplain. This offense needs to work in other ways, too, if the Giants hope to regain the massive home-field advantage they enjoyed in 2012 (48-33) and could not replicate last year (42-40).

They need to take a pitcher like Trevor Cahill and run up his pitch count, make him labor and, in a perfect world, get him to lob 80 before he’s out of the fourth. But they also need to stay ready and seize on the cookie when they get it, even if it’s the first pitch of the at-bat. They need to be smart and aggressive, aggressive and smart, and forever hungry for more.

Guess what? They did all those things in Tuesday’s home opener.

They made Cahill work hard. But they also jumped on the first pitch and put it in play three times, and went 3 for 3.

That’s nothing new. The Giants are hitting .487 (!!!) when they put the first pitch into play. They’re also hitting an astounding .450 in 40 at-bats with runners in scoring position and two outs. Those numbers aren’t sustainable. They won't always be so productive in the clutch. But they’re having quality at-bats, and there’s no reason they can’t keep that up.

Morse was thinking about that, about having a quality at-bat, as he power punched the air following his two-run hit in the third.

“Well, two strikes and two outs,” he said. “I battled that at-bat, man. I got a good pitch just to touch and put into play, and … I’m loving it here. These fans, they're tremendous.”

Could the Giants offense be as tremendously productive at AT&T Park as it was in 2012? One obvious key will be keeping Angel Pagan healthy. He’s sporting a .441 average while hitting safely in all eight games – six of them multiple-hit affairs – and he’s getting more fastballs for everyone else in the lineup as a result. 

Hudson faced Pagan plenty when the Braves and Mets would tangle in NL East games. He sees a different player now.

“He’s grown,” Hudson said. “Not that he wasn’t good before, but he’s a lot better and that’s what you want to see: guys mature as player. He’s been a table setter, and more, he’s been doing damage for us.”

Said Pagan: “I worked hard for this. Last year, when I got hurt, I didn’t know how important I was to the team until my teammates told me. That gave me the motivation to work hard for this year, and now this is the best start of my career.”

Last year, the Giants didn’t have Pagan for nearly 90 games because of hamstring surgery. That meant they were missing both their dynamic 1-2 hitters from the team that cruised to an NL West title in 2012. You don’t hear Melky Cabrera’s name around these parts much anymore, but you can’t forget what a force of nature he was prior to his drug suspension in August, 2012. He was leading the majors in hits and runs scored when that news broke.

So we ask again: Could the Giants really be as dynamic now as they were then?

“I feel we have the right kind of hitters for this ballpark,” Belt said. “We have guys who hit it on a line. Plus we know what it’s like to hit here and we’ve dealt with it. Other guys might come in here and it’ll get in their heads. That’s something we don’t have to deal with.”

Said Crawford: “Well, we have a lot of good hitters. I think it’s pretty much simple as that. We have a lot of guys that compete at the plate. Last year we didn’t do that very well but we addressed it in the spring.”

They addressed it, in part, with a points-based system devised by hitting coach Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens. The game pits three teams captained by Pence, Posey and Sandoval.

That’s another reason Morse was pumping his fist. He was stockpiling points in his head like he’d just played a J on a double-letter space as part of a triple-word score.

“Two outs, a quality at-bat, plus the hit, plus the RBIs…” he said. “That was a good score right there.”

The only thing missing was Morse’s familiar walk-up music. He’s planning to play A-Ha’s “Take On Me” only before his third at-bat. You think Meulens has these guys thinking strategically at the plate? Morse is extending that concept to his walk-up tunes. 

“You know, let people get some fluids in them,” said Morse, who hopes for the same high-pitched, stadium-wide karaoke that Washington Nationals fans embraced so well.

Told that Giants fans didn’t really react the first time, Morse smiled: "Trust me. It gets better.” 

It was pretty good in left field, where Morse said he already has built a rapport with fans.

“I’m hearing voices already,” he said. “I can pick out certain people.”

It's harder, though, for a solitary voice to rise above 40,000 cheers. The Giants instilled plenty of those in their home opener. They hope to keep the decibels cranked up, along with the pressure on the opposing pitcher.

“I tell you something,” Pagan said. “Every time we play here, the energy we get, we feed off it. It’s hard not to. … And when you see your teammates working hard and executing plays and taking great at-bats, it’s energizing too. You know that will translate to success this season.” 

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