AT&T Park — Three hours before the San Francisco Giants opened their three-game series against the San Diego Padres on Monday, Pablo Sandoval sat at his locker in the far corner of the Giants’ AT&T Park clubhouse. Like many of his teammates, he was fixated on his phone.
In the pregame quiet, Sandoval wasn’t using earbuds or headphones, so the sound of the highlights he was watching was easily discernible: “And Sandoval gets the Dodgers …”
“Yeah, we’ve watched it, and it’s funny,” Sandoval said. “Good mechanics.”
Before his 11-pitch relief appearance against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday — the video of which has over 188,000 views on YouTube as of press time — Sandoval hadn’t pitched in the Major Leagues. He hadn’t pitched as a professional. Before he stepped on the mound in the ninth inning of the front end of a day-night doubleheader, the last time Sandoval pitched, he was a Little Leaguer in Venezuela.
“I threw left-handed,” said Sandoval, who, throwing right-handed, retired all three Dodgers he faced in the final inning of a 15-6 loss.
The switch-hitting Sandoval was born left-handed. When he told his father, Luis, that he wanted to play the infield and catch, Luis set about converting his son to a righty. Every time Sandoval failed to hit his father in the chest with a throw, he had to run laps.
Sandoval began that regimen when he was nine, and by the time of his last pitching appearance — when he was 10 or 11, he figures — he was playing the field as a right-hander, but he still had that left-handed glove in reserve for when he headed to the mound.
He’s since had surgery on his left shoulder (in 2016), so throwing from both sides — as manager Bruce Bochy joked on Monday — won’t happen, but on Saturday, Sandoval showed quite a repertoire for someone who hadn’t pitched in 20 years, and even then, not from the same side.
Over the years, Sandoval — like many position players over the course of a long baseball season — has toyed with different pitches while warming up down the lines. The one pitch he’s perfected has been his change up.
“I’ve worked on that one, warming up on the lines with the guys, with [second baseman Joe] Panik, especially,” Sandoval said. “I’ll throw a couple changes like that. It was looking pretty good out there.”
That pitch sat between 81 and 84 on Saturday.
“I’ll be honest: I haven’t paid attention to Pablo and his pitching, but he’s always having fun, jumping on the mound, or even when he plays catch, and a lot of the players do,” Bochy said. “He’s on the mound sometimes during cutoffs and relays. Before we start, he’s on the mound throwing to the catcher.”
That’s why Bochy approached Sandoval in the bottom of the seventh — instead of other would-be position player pitchers — and asked if he would take the mound. He told Bochy, “I’ll be available.”
“It’s different. You see the home plate, it’s close,” Sandoval said. “I talked to [catcher Nick] Hundley, and I went like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a change up, and I can mix it up with a curveball, so let’s do this.'”
“Great,” Hundley said. “Here we go. Just throw what you want to throw, do what you’ve got to do, man. This is awesome. If you want to throw a curveball, throw a curveball. I’ll be back here to hopefully catch it.”
Sandoval’s curveball — which sat between 69 and 73 on Saturday — was, he said, untaught.
“From the first pitch in warm-ups, he dotted everything,” Hundley said. “He threw a change up in warm-ups that we didn’t throw in the game that was actually pretty good. He threw a couple curveballs that I was expecting to hit the grass in front of the plate and bounce twice, but he threw it down and away, and a couple back-doors. I was like, ‘Man, this is awesome.'”
After retiring Max Muncy on a change up grounded to second for the first out, he spun a tight bender on the outside corner for his first pitch to Yasmani Grandal, a 69-mph beauty.
“I went, ‘Don’t leave a pitch where they can hit it out of the park. Don’t embarrass yourself,'” said Sandoval, who got Grandal to ground out on a fastball at the knees.
With a fastball that topped out at 88 and a nice, short arm action, Sandoval even had Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen smiling.
“I was excited,” Hundley said. “I felt like a fan, honestly. That was the first time in my life, where I was catching a game and I felt like I wasn’t really in the game. The crowd was going nuts. We’ve run off three in a row since then, since that inning. It was really important, just in terms of our morale, to flush that whole game. That was a stinker, from the start.”
The three-hour, 53-minute game saw the Dodgers rattle out 20 hits, and no pitcher — save for Sandoval — was able to retire them in order.
“That’s a long game,” Bochy said. “Four hours, we were getting beat up pretty good. It really brought some levity to our situation. It lightened the mood a little bit. The way the crowd got into Pablo pitching, I thought we were winning.”
Despite the acclaim he’s received, Sandoval isn’t keen on making a repeat appearance on the mound.
“No, no, no, no,” he said, putting his phone away. “I’ll still play defense. I don’t want to pitch.”