Pablo Sandoval is still all the rage in San Francisco — “Kung Fu Panda” as Giants fans call him (or, more properly “The Round Mound of Pound“) is the life of the McCovey clubhouse, devising a handshake for every player and starring in self-directed Youtube videos that extol the virtues of playing in the Bay. But after a stellar ’09 season that featured a .330 BA and 25 home runs, the rotund sometime-third-baseman (he now plays mostly at first), has cooled off. He’s hitting just.270 with six dingers in 2010, a far cry from his all star-like assault on NL pitchers last year. Frisco fans know the problem — “the panda” is so impatient at the plate that the Giants’ in-dugout brain trust has to regularly remind him to wait on pitches. And his weight is ballooning. The official stats show him at 245 pounds, but that’s probably more of a wish. When the season started, Sandoval (“with a heart full of napalm“) predicted he would hit .350 with 30 home runs.
The Panda has struggled — and Giants fans noticed, criticizing his “quirky ways,” lack of mental preparation and “top heavy” swing. They weren’t alone. Bay manager Bruce Bochy raised a hue and cry when he pinch hit for Sandoval at the end of June, a hint that Giants’ management was less than enamored of his free swinging habits and lack of production. But that’s not all: Sandoval’s mental mistakes were (and continue to be) exasperating for his teammates who, after one gaffe (he overran second, and was picked off), isolated him on the Giants’ bench. He shrugged: “Yesterday is yesterday,” he said in Spanish. “Today is another day.” Maybe. But the Panda’s early season struggles, and the eclipse of a whole set of Giants hitters, sent San Francisco G.M. Brian Sabean in search of hitting.
The most recent and important addition was the signing of Pat Burrell, whose free agent stint with the Rays was less than what Tampa had wanted. San Francisco welcomed the former Phillies’ slugger with open arms — and an apparently open wallet. Burrell has responded, adding pop to the anemic line-up. The front office made other changes: dealing fan favorite Bengie Molina to Texas for reliever Chris Ray and (not incidentally), freeing up the space behind the plate for waiting-in-the-wings Buster Posey. Posey is a kind of anti-Sandoval, a no-nonsense mature-beyond-his-years sleek piece of clay. Posey is a trimmed down version of Sandoval, a star in the making, a team tiger to Sandoval’s weighty bear.Â The Molina-for-Ray trade not only shed a veteran presence, it lopped about 45 pounds (or more!) off the team’s collective weight. Sabean’s Molina message was clear: if you want to stay in San Francisco you have to produce. Bruce Bochy is with this program — he has benched slumping Aaron Rowand and built a new, younger and faster outfield that is anchored by a revived Aubrey Huff.
The result? Ask the Milwaukee Brewers. The Giants breezed into Milwaukee for a four game series against The Crew on July 5 and dunked the guzzlers in four straight. This was not your normal sweep, but a San Francisco blitzkrieg: the Giants outscored Milwaukee 36-7, notching 50 hits in four games while showing off one of the major league’s best pitching staffs: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and “oh-my-god-he’s-finally-arrived” rookie Madison Bumgarner. Which is not to mention that “other” Frisco arm, Jonathan Sanchez who, since his no-hitter last year, has turned into a top-of-the-rotation (in San Francisco that term means “behind Lincecum and Cain”) starter. Sanchez (once viewed as trade bait to, among others, the Washington Nationals), is now a mere 7-6 with a 3.50 ERA. For most teams, those kinds of numbers would have a G.M. salivating, in San Francisco they’re only passable. Now, as a part of their midwest and east coast road swing, the once punchless Giants are headed into Nationals Park. The match-up starts tonight, as “The Kid” faces off against the savvy and relentless Matt Cain.