After breaking through late in 2016, Okert pushing for Opening Day job

After breaking through late in 2016, Okert pushing for Opening Day job

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Steven Okert made his MLB debut last April and walked the first batter he faced. The next batter taught him a valuable lesson. 

“The ball was smoked and (Brandon) Crawford is right there and he turns two,” Okert said Sunday. “It was like, ‘Wow. Don’t try to do too much. Use your defense.’ You’ve got Crawford out there making diving plays, and Joe (Panik) up the middle, and (Brandon) Belt scooping balls and (Eduardo) Nunez out there, and our outfielders. That takes pressure off any pitcher.”

Okert tried to keep that in mind throughout his three stints in the big leagues, and the late-season results showed that he was getting better and better at slowing the game down. When he returned in September, Okert allowed one run in nine appearances, with eight strikeouts in those eight innings. That put him in position to try and win an opening day job this spring. It would be natural for Okert to feel that added weight this month, but he said he has tried to ignore it.

“I try not to think about it at all, honestly,” he said. “Ultimately the decision is not mine. There’s nothing I can do other than show my best on the field. Me and (Josh) Osich are buddies and we hang out. It’s a weird position to be in, being buddies and competing, but I’m trying to stay within myself.”

Okert has tried not to look at the numbers. But if he were to sneak a glance at the stat sheet, he would see a young left-hander who has done everything necessary to line up at Chase Field on April 2. In seven scoreless innings, he has allowed just two hits, walked one, and struck out four. He entered after Jeff Samardzija ran into a jam in the fifth Sunday, getting two grounders and a harmless fly to center to strand a runner. 

“O has been good. He's done all he can,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen between those guys, but he certainly has pitched well.”

Early on, it looked like a big spring would make Okert an opening-day lock. Osich allowed runs in each of his first three outings and Will Smith missed the first few weeks of action with an irritated elbow. But Osich has settled in, with just one hit allowed over his past four appearances. Smith made his spring debut Friday and he’s set to ramp it up even more this week. 

If Smith is ready for opening day, the decision for the second lefty spot will be a difficult one. Okert has elevated his status in part by listening to those around him. He has taken advice from Jeremy Affeldt on how to deal with the mental part of pitching, and when Tim Hudson was in camp in February, Okert picked his brain about his changeup. The best advice may have come from a position player. 

“The first time he caught me, (Nick) Hundley noticed that sometimes I’m locked in on the target and sometimes I’m looking somewhere else,” he said. “Hundley and (Tim) Federowicz have gotten on me about looking in (at them) consistently. Everything with pitching is about being repeatable with your delivery, so I’ve been working on that.”

Okert has a fastball that regularly ran up to 94 last season, but he’s focusing on being less of a strikeout pitcher. He knows the best path through an inning with the Giants is often to let the Gold Glove-heavy defense take over, and he’s hoping he gets to test Crawford, Panik and others often. The September run last year showed that he belongs, but teammates made that clear long before Okert found his stride on the mound.

“Getting back up to the big leagues last year, when I walked in, right away it was: 'Congratulations. Make it about you being you. Make your pitches and you’ll be fine,'" Okert said. "And getting in a couple of big situations last year, that helped a lot."

Starting to rev things up, Hunter Pence has big night at plate and in left

Starting to rev things up, Hunter Pence has big night at plate and in left

PEORIA — Jeff Samardzija spent a couple minutes after Thursday’s start talking to reporters about how deep he thinks the Giants lineup can be. It’ll be a hell of a lot deeper if Hunter Pence keeps hitting like this. 

After a slow start to the spring, Pence is charging. He had three hits against the Padres: a triple that bounced off the top of the wall in right-center, a hard single up the middle, and a double to center. The more encouraging plays for the Giants happened in left field. Pence chased down a drive to the line in the third inning, leaving the bases loaded. He opened the fourth by going the other direction and gloving a fly ball to left-center. 

"A good game for Hunter, both ways," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's getting more comfortable out there. You can see it with the jumps he's getting right now. It takes a little while when you change positions, but I think he's going to be fine out there."

The Giants appear set to have Austin Jackson and Pence atop the lineup against left-handed starters, and that duo could see plenty of time early. Seven of the first nine games are against the Dodgers, who have four lefty starters. 

--- Evan Longoria had a double off the right-center wall on Wednesday after missing a week with a sore ankle. He had a single the same way in his second at-bat Thursday. More than the at-bats, Longoria has impressed with his soft hands and steady arm at third. The ankle looks fine, too. 

“My ankle feels pretty good,” Longoria said. “I don’t think it’s going to be an issue going forward.”

--- It’s been a quiet spring for Andrew McCutchen, but we saw the wheels tonight. McCutchen easily stole second after a two-run single in the fifth. When Evan Longoria bounced one to the left side, shortstop Freddy Galvis tried to go to third for the lead out, but McCutchen beat that throw, too. He got up and put his hands on his hips, as if to say, "Why'd you even try that?"

--- Samardzija allowed three homers in a six-batter span in the third. He allowed three homers in an inning in his previous start, too, but he said he’s not concerned. Samardzija deemed it a sequencing issue. He’s working in a new changeup and threw it in situations he normally wouldn’t; Eric Hosmer took advantage of a floating one, crushing it to deep, deep right for the third homer. 

--- With a runner on, Brandon Belt put down a perfect bunt to foil the shift. Belt does that every spring, particularly against NL West teams, but rarely during the regular season. Maybe this will be the year?

Belt later crushed a homer to deep right. That had to feel good for a number of reasons. Belt is fighting a cold and he learned earlier in the day that his college coach, Augie Garrido, had passed away.

Josh Osich goes back to his roots looking to unleash all the potential


Josh Osich goes back to his roots looking to unleash all the potential

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For most pitchers, spring training is a time to experiment and add a pitch or two. Josh Osich is using this month to go the other direction. 

Osich spent the offseason watching film of his 2015 season, when he looked like he might one day be the closer in San Francisco, and decided that he needed to get back to his roots. That means the curveball, which he tried so hard to mix in last year, is now far back in the cupboard. The four-seam and two-seam fastballs are once again the focus, with an emphasis on changing eye levels more than he did a year ago. The changeup and cutter will round out his arsenal for the most part. 

Osich’s raw stuff is still as good as just about any lefty reliever in the league, and he hopes to take advantage of that while putting a rough 2017 season in his rearview mirror. He had a 6.23 ERA last season and 1.73 WHIP.

“It’s just one of those learning years,” Osich said. “I tried to live at the bottom of the zone and I was, but I was actually below the zone. So then I would fall behind and need to throw a strike and that’s when guys would hit me.”

Osich, 29, had a 2.20 ERA and 1.12 WHIP during that 2015 season that he keeps going back to. He walked eight batters in 28 2/3 innings, a far cry from the 27 he walked in 43 1/3 last year. While watching the 2015 version of himself, Osich saw that his hands were higher, and that’s something he’s working to replicate. He’s also trying to slow his pace to the plate. So far, the results are nothing but encouraging. Osich allowed one hit and struck out one in a 2 1/3 inning appearance on Wednesday night. Manager Bruce Bochy let him extend himself to keep the good vibes going. 

In six appearances this spring, Osich has allowed just four hits over seven scoreless innings. He has seven strikeouts and one walk. 

“O, it just seems like he’s got confidence,” Bochy said. “He’s kept it simple, he’s not tinkering with different pitches. He’s throwing more strikes, and more than anything he’s just trying to pound the strike zone now with quality strikes. That’s all he has to do. You look at him and he’s hitting 95 with a couple of good off-speed pitches. That works here.”