The Giants' clubhouse is full of guys who entered this season knowing they could have been shipped elsewhere before the trade deadline, but nobody was quite in Brandon Belt's situation.
Belt is one of three Giants who started a 10th Opening Day for the franchise on April 1, but the other two, Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford, took the field in Seattle that night with a bit more stability under their feet. Posey is the longtime face of the franchise and Crawford is the homegrown shortstop, and both possess full no-trade clauses. Belt has been there with both every step of the way, but he has had more trouble winning over the entire fan base, and his contract limits the number of teams he can block as trade partners.
It would have been very easy for Belt to start this season wondering where he would be playing on August 1. But he says he never did.
"It definitely could have been different, but I didn't let my mind go there earlier because I feel like I knew from early on that we had a good shot at doing something this year," he said late last month. "I didn't know if we would have the best record in the league, but I thought we'd have a good shot at making the playoffs. I didn't let my mind go there and I just focused on winning ball games, and thankfully we're in this position and not the other way around."
Belt's confidence was not misplaced, and when the deadline arrived the Giants were buyers, not sellers. They also were set to benefit from a second infusion of talent, one that started on this past road trip. Tommy La Stella and Belt returned to the lineup after lengthy absences and Evan Longoria is not far behind.
The Giants are getting fully healthy at the right time, and Belt made sure there was no ambiguity about his role as he returned to an overstuffed roster. He hit four homers in three games in Milwaukee, and given how narrow that series victory was, you can make the argument that Belt's well-timed hot streak prevented a sweep.
As Belt ramped up the rehab process in late July, he was confident he would hit the ground running. He is a streaky hitter, but he just had a feeling that he was locking in as a rehab assignment approached. Before leaving for Triple-A, Belt sat down for an interview in the dugout at Oracle Park and said he felt great. "All I've done is hit BP," he admitted, "But I've been hitting missiles."
That Belt was even able to get to a rehab assignment was a bit of an upset. His season took a turn on June 23 in Anaheim when he tried to score on a poor throw to third and felt his right knee buckle as he headed for home. Belt had season-ending surgery on the knee in 2018, but he said what he felt in Anaheim "wasn't a pain that I've felt before."
Belt knew he had done some damage, and for a few days he could barely walk. He needed help getting on the plane as he headed back to San Francisco for tests and couldn't lift his leg into his car when he arrived. He couldn't put any weight on the knee, but early MRIs were encouraging, and one day, as he waited to make a decision, Belt woke up to a different world.
"A few days (later) I woke up and it was better," he said. "It was weird."
As Belt was helped back to the clubhouse in Anaheim, he thought there was a good chance he was done for the year. He had a microfracture procedure on the knee in 2018 and a second injury in the same spot can often lead to a very lengthy recovery process, but he got four opinions on the knee after coming out of the game in Anaheim and the doctors told him he did not need another microfracture.
"When they told me that, it was a huge relief," he said.
Belt has twice had his right meniscus cleaned up in his career and a minor surgical procedure was an option this time, but that would have knocked him out a couple of months, and doctors told him he could try to rehab instead. As Belt got into the process, he started to feel better and better.
While the Giants were pushing for the Kris Bryant trade, Belt took his final steps and started a rehab assignment. He was itching to get back, and after just 15 plate appearances at Triple-A he returned to the lineup. Belt went 1-for-3 with a walk in his return but looked to already have his timing at the plate.
"It's been tough in the past to be able to do that but I think just maturing over the past few years and knowing what I want to do at the plate and knowing how to stay more consistent now, that has helped," he said Sunday. "It definitely feels good to get back out there and not have a lot of downtime where I have to adjust. I've been able to step in and help the team win right away."
Belt has been here before, of course. His Giants run has been at least partially defined by bad luck and injuries. In 2014 he suffered a serious concussion that knocked him out for six weeks in the second half, but he returned at the end of that year and found his timing just before the playoffs, leading to a dramatic 18th-inning homer against the Washington Nationals that is his best individual moment as a big leaguer.
During this latest stint on the IL, Belt saw a parallel between that Giants team and this one.
"No matter who we put in the lineup, they really step up," he said.
With LaMonte Wade Jr. and Darin Ruf filling the void, the Giants were able to let Belt rehab and stay in first place. But they're a better team with Belt on the field, and he was eager to get back and show it.
Belt is a free agent at the end of the year and he could have very easily opted for surgery and a cleaner bill of health going forward, but this brand of baseball is familiar to him, and he wanted to be part of it as soon as possible.
"I wanted to come back and help these guys get to the playoffs and win baseball games and hopefully win a World Series this year. I wanted to be part of that," he said. "I've been a part of it before and it's been a while.
"I wanted to do it again, especially with this group of guys that I might not play with again, so it was really important for me to get back."