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Panik, Belt continue to look like answers at top of Giants' lineup

Panik, Belt continue to look like answers at top of Giants' lineup

SCOTTSDALE — Bruce Bochy continues to keep his cards close when asked about his new lineup plans, but a couple of longtime Giants look like they’re trying to force his hand. 

Joe Panik and Brandon Belt once again teamed up together atop the lineup, and once again it looked like a natural fit for a team that appears poised to have Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey and Evan Longoria lined up in the heart of the order. 

Panik led off the game against the Angels with a single and swiped second on a busted hit-and-run. He went to third on a grounder to the right side and scored on a wild pitch. Speed is not Panik’s game, but he’s a smart baserunner, and so much of what he does well matches up with the leadoff spot. 

Panik had a .347 on-base percentage last season and was the hardest player in the majors to strike out. He’s equally adept at facing lefties and righties, too. Panik hit .290 with a .349 OBP against left-handed pitchers last year and .287 with a .347 OBP against right-handed pitchers. 

“I definitely have gotten more comfortable this spring batting leadoff,” Panik said. “The approach is the same, but you are the guy setting the tone. So far I’ve enjoyed it. For me, hitting leadoff, I always think about keeping the same approach, but the more and more I do it, I can definitely see myself in that role.”

Bochy said earlier this week that Panik could remain near the top of the lineup against lefties, even if Austin Jackson — a southpaw crusher — is batting leadoff, and that seems the best option. Hunter Pence has been considered as an option to be the No. 2 hitter, but he’s been searching at the plate all spring, and is batting just .105. 

The Giants are trying to embrace more advanced statistics with a new staff, and the new way of thinking for many teams is that your best all-around hitter should bat second. Belt, on many nights, qualifies, at least against right-handed pitching. He had a .375 on-base percentage and slugged .504 against right-handers last season.

In the third inning Saturday, Belt hit a homer that disappeared onto the back field at Scottsdale Stadium. The blast was his second in two games. In the fourth, Panik drew a two-out walk and Belt followed with a hard double down the left field line. 

“He smoked that,” Bochy said. “That loop (in his swing) wasn’t as big. It was shorter. It wasn’t quite as loopy. He’s got to feel good about his day today.”

The Giants have two more weeks to nail down their final plans, but it seems pretty clear at this point that they’ll leave the desert having found a pretty good solution atop the lineup. 

--- Evan Longoria was out of the lineup for a second straight day because of left ankle/heel tightness. He said the training staff is confident that there are no structural issues. “It just flared up out there during a workout,” Longoria said. It'll be at least a couple more days before he returns. 

--- The Giants played split-squads against the Angels and a couple of young starters had a rough go of it. Over in Tempe, Tyler Beede gave up six runs on eight hits in 2 1/3 innings. Beede was sharp early but was knocked out by a barrage of singles. At Scottsdale Stadium, Andrew Suarez was charged with five earned in four innings. 

--- Steven Duggar is having a solid spring at the plate, but it’s in center where he’s really opening eyes. Duggar chased down a ball to the right-center wall early in the game and made a strong throw to Panik, who made an equally strong throw to third to cut down a would-be triple. Panik said Duggar’s throw hit him in the perfect spot, allowing him to spin and throw in one motion. 

“We all should take as much pride in that as a home run,” Bochy said. “That was perfectly done.”

I’ll say this: It’s an outfield play the Giants would not have made last year. Or the year before. Or the year before that … 

Sacramento native Rhys Hoskins reaches Home Run Derby semis


Sacramento native Rhys Hoskins reaches Home Run Derby semis

WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper thrilled the home crowd and surely made his father proud, winning the All-Star Home Run Derby on Monday night with an exceptional display of power that carried him past Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs 19-18.

Harper hit the contest-winning blast in extra time, the reward for hitting two homers at least 440 feet during the 4 minutes of regulation. After he connected with the game winner, the Washington Nationals slugger threw his bat in the air and pointed both index fingers toward the sky as a shower of streamers rained upon the crowd of 43,698.

The six-time All-Star arranged to have his dad, Ron, pitch to him in the annual contest on the eve of the All-Star Game. Harper responded with a performance that drew the loudest cheers of the night at Nationals Park.

It’s been a trying season for Harper, who’s hitting only .214 for the disappointing Nationals. He won a contest that many sluggers avoid, fearful it might wear them out and throw them off.

Harper can only hope this helps him get back into the swing.

The 2015 NL MVP beat Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves and Max Muncy of the Dodgers before trumping the fifth-seeded Schwarber, who put the pressure on with a solid outing before Harper stepped to the plate.

Wearing a headband that resembled the District of Columbia flag and displaying a right sleeve with stars and stripes, Harper trailed 18-9 with 1:20 left before rallying. He homered on nine of his last 10 swings before entering extra time.

Hours before the session, Harper spoke excitedly about having his dad pitch to him in the contest. The 25-year-old said his father “worked his tail off every single day to provide for me and my family” and “now being able to have him throw to me in a big league ballpark is the cherry on top.”

Harper advanced to the final with an astonishing spree of long-ball hitting. He trailed Max Muncy of the Dodgers 12-4 with 2:20 left, then peeled off six homers in 47 seconds before calling a timeout.

Harper returned to hit three more home runs in 22 seconds, the last of them inside the right-field foul pole.

The semifinal matchup between Schwarber and Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins was a thriller. After stunning top-seed Jesus Aguilar of Milwaukee in the opening round, the eighth-seeded Hoskins ripped 20 long balls to put the pressure on Schwarber.

Using a late surge, Schwarber pulled one ball after another over the right field wall to squeeze out a 21-20 victory — by far the highest-scoring matchup of the night.

The fans dutifully cheered most home runs during the first round, but they saved their loudest cheers for Harper, the last player to step to the plate.

After Freeman hit 12 home runs over the 4-minute span, Harper unleashed six shots of at least 440 feet and secured the victory with a drive to center long before the clock expired. As the ball cleared the wall, the left-handed hitting Harper walked out of the batter’s box and thrust both arms in the air.

Freeman was the oldest player in the field at 28, and the first Braves participant since Andruw Jones in 2005.

Milwaukee’s Aguilar, the NL home run leader at the break, was eliminated in the opening round by Hoskins 17-12.

Aguilar hit too many balls to straightaway center, where the wall stands over 400 feet from the plate. Hoskins pumped most of his drives into the left-field seats, where it’s 336 feet down the line.

The most thrilling first-round match featured a near buzzer-beater by Houston’s Alex Bregman, who fell to Schwarber 16-15. The difference was the pair of homers that Schwarber hit during 30 seconds of extra time, the reward for hitting two long balls of at least 440 feet.

Bregman — the lone AL representative — appeared defeated with a minute left, but he mounted a late surge and lost when his final swing produced a drive that landed at the base of the center-field wall.

Muncy advanced by defeating No. 6 seed Javier Baez of the Cubs, 16-15. Baez hit the longest shot of the Derby, a 479-footer.

Aaron Rodgers hits fan jumping off a boat in Tahoe in stride with perfect throw


Aaron Rodgers hits fan jumping off a boat in Tahoe in stride with perfect throw

Green Bay Packers quarterback (and former Cal Golden Bear) Aaron Rodgers is known for his downfield accuracy. 

Rodgers has three successful Hail Marys to his name. The first, on Dec. 3, 2015 against the Detroit Lions, kept his team's playoff hopes alive. Another, on Jan. 16, 2016 against the Arizona Cardinals, sent the Divisional game to overtime, and a third came en route to a Wild Card game win against the New York Giants on Jan. 8, 2007. 

At the American Century Championship Celebrity Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe on Friday, Rodgers added another notch to his belt.

His latest effort won't be confused with the other three, but it's not like any of those receivers landed in a body of water, either. 

The real question? Whether or not that's a catch under the NFL's new rules.