MARYVALE, Ariz. -- For a split second, Kevin Gausman thought he would end up on SportsCenter. He still might, but not in the way he hoped.
For the second straight day, the Giants went to a four-outfielder alignment with a left-handed hitter at the plate. This time, with Brewers slugger Justin Smoak up, Mauricio Dubon was sent out to play left-center with Billy Hamilton sliding over to play right-center. All three infielders were on the right side, leaving half the infield open for Smoak, who went the opposite way just 17.8 percent of the time last season. The outfield was fully covered, with the speedy duo of Hamilton and Dubon ready to cut off the gaps.
Gausman stuck to the scouting report and busted Smoak in with a firm fastball. A few seconds later, he was on the grass, watching Yolmer Sanchez fail to catch a weak pop-up that landed just about exactly where Dubon had been standing before the dramatic shift:
Shift happens. pic.twitter.com/MoBW4J1qHa— Kerry Crowley (@KO_Crowley) March 6, 2020
"That was an ugly play, for sure, on my part," Gausman said, smiling. "It's all part of the game. Once he hit it I knew that we were shifted. That's my area to field on that type of play and I just kind of got going a little too fast, I guess, and hit the deck pretty quickly there.
"Right when he hit it I was like, 'Man, this is a Top 10 play.' I just started going down and I was still looking up when I was going down and I was like, 'This is not good.' Not my most athletic moment on the baseball field, but it happens."
The Giants have prepared for moments like this. Their pitchers went through pop-up drills early in camp and worked at catching balls that were hit in the air toward third base. Gausman was told before the game that the staff would signal for four outfielders against Smoak, who ranked fourth in the Majors by being shifted in 91.4 percent of his at-bats from the left side last season.
But there's nothing you can do when the batter pops one up to no-man's land. It's no different than a broken-bat flare finding an open patch of grass, and Gausman pointed out that he has watched plenty of line drives get stopped by a shifted infielder over the last few years.
"You like it when it works for you and you don't like it when it doesn't," Gausman said. "It's kind of as simple as that."
The Giants look poised to shift more often and in more creative ways this season, but they actually mixed in four outfielders before Gabe Kapler and Kai Correa arrived. Joe Panik moved to right field a couple of times last season and the organization used four-outfielder alignments in the minor leagues to get prospects used to the new reality.
Kapler said he has talked to the pitchers and will continue to communicate because he doesn't want to do extreme shifts if a pitcher is uncomfortable with it. He said the marginal advantage gained by shifting is not worth the dent to a pitcher's confidence in a certain pitch, but the Giants will continue to experiment. They also could test out a five-infielder alignment this spring, Kapler said.
"The criteria is extreme fly-ball hitter, and when they do pull the ball they pull it on the ground, so we're covering the area where they're most likely to hit the ball on the ground and then we're covering a wider area in the outfield for balls that they drive, and in theory, we're taking away some extra-base hits there," Kapler said of the alignment for Smoak. "For what it's worth on our shifts -- on all of them -- it's not always going to work. The idea is it's kind of a portfolio game.
"We want to see as many groundballs and fly balls as possible and then we feel confident we're going to catch more, but there are going to be times where we wish we were playing in a traditional alignment and we just weren't."