SAN FRANCISCO — Long before he was the Panda, Pablo Sandoval was simply a young little leaguer who had to run laps because of the lack of command he had on his throws.
Sandoval was born as a left-hander, but he wanted to play shortstop and catcher in Little League in Venezuela, and his grandfather, Luis, was willing to teach him how to throw right-handed. There was a catch. Young Pablo had to run a lap every time he failed to hit Luis in the chest with a throw.
“I ran lots of laps,” Sandoval recalled Saturday.
Nearly three decades later, he ran circles around Dodgers hitters.
Sandoval brought some levity to a game that was otherwise one of the ugliest in years. The Giants lost 15-6 to the Dodgers and churned through their bullpen in the first game of a doubleheader after Chris Stratton recorded just four outs. The situation was so dire that a minor league pitcher, D.J, Snelten, was on his way to the park from Triple-A during the game. So, in the seventh, manager Bruce Bochy turned and found Sandoval.
Bochy had never put a Giants position player on the mound. He has repeatedly gone out of his way to avoid doing so, no matter the score or situation. The organization had not had a position player take the mound since Greg Litton handled the ninth against the Astros on July 4, 1991, and before that, only two other San Francisco Giants position players had done it. Matty Alou pitched two scoreless innings in 1965 and Dave Kingman pitched in two games in 1973.
Bochy has resisted Brandon Belt’s pleas for years and has always found another way. But after Stratton was pulled, Roberto Gomez threw 73 pitches out of the bullpen and Derek Law threw 63 more. With two more games looming over the next 24 hours, Bochy needed someone to soak up the top of the ninth. Sandoval was the easy choice.
“He can throw left or right, depending on who is hitting,” he said, smiling. “He’s always having fun on the mound. I knew he had a pretty good delivery. I didn’t know it was quite this clean and he had a breaking ball like that. It was legit. I think without question, he wanted to do it. He was the perfect guy for today.”
Sandoval often will pretend to be a pitcher while warming up with Brandon Crawford when the Giants take the field in the afternoon to stretch. They’ll mimic calling strikes, a game Crawford also plays with Belt.
There’s more to this than arm talent, though. Belt’s fate was sealed the moment he signed a massive contract extension. Ditto with Crawford, who like Belt, pitched in college. The risk is too high, at least for now.
But the Red Sox are on the hook for nearly all of Sandoval’s remaining money, and that freedom has allowed the player and team to simply enjoy a second life together. Sandoval is the backup at first and third and the primary pinch-hitter. He is a bundle of energy in the dugout, and Bochy has repeatedly given him credit this year for embracing his role and being a spark plug for an aging team. Sandoval took that approach to the mound as the crowd stood and realized what was going on.
“Just have fun,” he said later. “It’s one of those things. I let the guys know, no matter what the situation, have fun.”
Bochy made his intentions clear a half-inning earlier. Trailing by nine, Austin Jackson pinch-hit for Cory Gearrin. There was not a pitcher warming up in the bullpen. Bochy turned to Belt as the first baseman gripped a bat and moved into the on-deck circle. He asked Belt if he was going to be mad at him.
“Why?” Belt asked back.
“Pablo is pitching,” Bochy replied.
Bochy said Belt might get his shot eventually, but this day was about Sandoval. After having the laces on his orange glove snipped, he dug in. Max Muncy got an 83 mph fastball and the crowd roared. When Muncy bounced the next pitch, an 84 mph pitch with some sink, to second base, the Dodgers dugout burst into laughter.
Sandoval opened Yasmani Grandal with a 69 mph curveball for a called strike. It was one of five curveballs Sandoval threw, and the pitch was a beauty, with a spin rate rivaling Cory Kluber's. Where did he learn how to throw it?
“You don’t learn that,” Sandoval said. “You’re born with it.”
Sandoval’s hardest pitch was the 88 mph fastball he threw on a 2-2 count to Grandal. It was bounced to third baseman Evan Longoria, who took Sandoval’s spot in the field. Chris Taylor was up next and he got an 87 mph fastball low and away, a perfect location for a first-pitch strike. He swung through a 70 mph curveball and then fouled another one off. Sandoval’s 11th pitch was an 88 mph fastball that Taylor hit to short for the third out.
The scoreless outing was the first by a Giants pitcher since Alou blanked the Pirates in 1965. It lasted just two minutes, 27 seconds, a victory for pace of play. It was the only 1-2-3 inning of the day for the Giants pitching staff.
“It was pretty impressive what he did,” Bochy said. “He had a great delivery and threw strikes.”
Four years ago, when he left town for the Red Sox, Sandoval looked like he would forever be an enemy at AT&T Park, despite his years of glory here. He returned last season humbled, and he has worked hard to rebuild the trust that was lost by a bridge-burning exit. The bottom of the ninth was the final step. Sandoval received a raucous standing ovation from those remaining when he took his last at-bat of the day. A few minutes later, he strapped an ice pack to his elbow as any dominant relief pitcher would. He said he loved the moment, but he’s not sure if he wants to do it again.
After all, he walked off the mound with a 0.00 ERA as a big league pitcher.
“Pretty good,” he said, laughing.