Postseason star Gillaspie continues to work on becoming impact defender

Postseason star Gillaspie continues to work on becoming impact defender

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Conor Gillaspie will forever be remembered in San Francisco for his home run in the Wild Card Game and his ability to turn on an Aroldis Chapman fastball in the NLDS, but the skill that might mean the most for his career going forward was on display during a far quieter moment.

In the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS, Addison Russell pulled a fastball down the line. Gillaspie backhanded the ball as it took an awkward and high bounce, and he quickly set his feet, one on the dirt and one on the edge of the grass in foul territory at Wrigley Field. He fired a perfect strike across the diamond, nailing the young shortstop by half a step. 

Once viewed as a potential issue at third base, Gillaspie was a steady presence when Eduardo Nuñez went down late with a hamstring injury. Throw in the quick, clutch bat and you’ve got a player the Giants will count on as a key member of the bench going forward. 

“He played a real nice third base for us,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “That was the knock on Conor and it got to the point where they were calling him a liability, (but last year) it got to the point where he played a nice third base and was solid over there.”

Advanced metrics consistently showed Gillaspie as a below-average defender in his first stint with the Giants and later years with the White Sox and Angels. According to FanGraphs, Gillaspie entered the 2016 season with negative 30 defensive runs saved. Among the 35 big leaguers who played at least 1,000 innings at third base in 2014 and 2015, Gillaspie ranked 34th in defensive runs saved and UZR (ultimate zone rating). Last season, he was worth five defensive runs saved in 304 innings, and the rest of his defensive metrics crossed over to the positive side of the ledger, too. After making 14 errors in 2015, Gillaspie had just two last season.

“The eye test tells the story, too,” said bench coach Ron Wotus, who works with the organization’s infielders. “He’s using his feet better than in the past. He figured out the best angles to throw the ball. The most important thing is confidence as a defender, and he’s worked extremely hard and he sees the benefit of him continuing to do those things. It’s gotten to the point this spring where I need to back him off a little. He loves to take grounders out there.”

Wotus has a well-earned reputation for his work with infielders. He has helped develop talented players like Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik into Gold Glove winners. His daily work with Matt Duffy helped turn a shortstop into a Gold Glove finalist at third base in a matter of months. The front office never worried about third base in the offseason in part because of a belief that Wotus can help Nuñez grow at the position.

In Gillaspie, Wotus has found a player who is every bit the grinder he is. Gillaspie is famous for the amount of work he puts in in the cage, and on a recent day in camp, unable to throw because of some minor soreness, he instead spent most his time breaking in a glove with a mallet-like instrument. Working with Wotus has been a perfect fit. 

“His willingness to go out and work every day is unsurpassed by anybody that I’ve ever been around,” Gillaspie said recently during an interview that runs in full on our Giants Insider Podcast. “It’s almost like he’s a player. He wants to do it every day with you and to help you and to answer questions.”

Wotus identified minor fixes when Gillaspie returned to the Giants last spring, after getting released by both the White Sox and Angels the year before. He thought Gillaspie was often in-between on his throws, and he didn’t have his feet lined up correctly. Gillaspie can still be prone to an extra step or two, but he continues to get smoother over time. Basic drills are a part of every day at the park. 

“The big thing we talk about is catch, set, and throw,” Wotus said. “You don’t want to be in a hurry. Just field the ball, use the fundamentals. He’s bought into it and you see the difference.”

Wotus and Gillaspie focus on doing the simple things right during drills. The rest is instinct, as Gillaspie showed while tumbling over the dugout rail for a stunning catch during the final week of the season.

Gillaspie’s natural instincts at the plate should again make him a key part of Bochy’s bench. For all the drilling and cage work, you can’t teach a player to turn on a 102 mph fastball. Months later, teammates still marvel at Gillaspie’s ability to pull a Chapman heater into Triples Alley for a go-ahead triple in the eighth inning of Game 3. 

“As a right-handed bat, to handle that kind of fastball is tough. But a guy from the left side, you don’t see it very often,” Bochy said. “It takes a quick swing. It takes a guy with confidence, who wants to go in there and mean business. He saved our skin, because we lost Nuney. As his confidence grew, he really started to get his swing.”

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.”