hat if Belt stays healthy for the rest of the season?
Nobody in sports wants to be part of a what-if conversation that looks backward. The whole implication is grim. “What if?” suggests that something critical was left on the table, an opportunity lost, and the people who play games for a living already know that such is the razor’s edge upon which they always dance. It’s part of the deal.
So let’s flip it: What if Brandon Belt stays healthy for the rest of the Giants’ season?
I know, we’re racing ahead of ourselves. Belt and “stays healthy” haven’t had the friendliest of relationships over the years. He just recently got back on the field after missing 23 games with inflammation in his troublesome right knee. Earlier this season, he was on the COVID list.
Last year? A fractured thumb cost him the end of his season and the postseason. An oblique strain got him for about 10 days. The right knee — two long months.
And you may know some of the other stuff, especially Belt’s fraught and freakish history of concussions. (The guy has practically been a moving target for thrown balls.) But now we’re going back five years and then some, when it’s actually far more interesting to spin this thing forward.
There's no question that it matters. Heading into Wednesday's game in Atlanta, the Giants were 21-12 with Belt active, 17-17 otherwise. Manager Gabe Kapler absolutely, positively wants his starting first baseman on the field. But it truly is levels deep.
It isn’t just that Belt’s bat is important in the S.F. lineup, although his home run power — he hit 29 in only 325 at-bats last year — is the kind of credible threat that changes how opposing teams pitch not only him, but potentially the batters before him.
Really, it’s, well, it’s everything. Belt’s presence at first gives Kapler the kinds of options with his lineup that he spent the offseason preparing to deploy. Those options haven’t come into play regularly due to longer-term injuries to Belt, Evan Longoria and LaMonte Wade Jr., along with Tommy La Stella’s gradual return from offseason surgery.
Now, with Belt on the field and working his way toward playing nine innings, Kapler can mix and match a little. Wilmer Flores can return to his super-utility role, and Darin Ruf, who’s made 18 starts at first base, most likely becomes a sometimes outfielder and oftentimes DH. Add La Stella at second and Longoria at third, and the Giants’ infield essentially resumes normal operations.
In a Tuesday game against the Royals, Kapler looked down the bench in the late innings and saw Belt, La Stella and Mike Yastrzemski all available to pinch-hit or sub in defensively. “This is what you visualize. It’s not a full roster, but we’re getting close, and that feels good,” the manager said.
It also feels tenuous, given the recent history. On the other hand, if Longoria and especially Belt can stay on the field, whole new possibilities open up, and nobody gets played into the ground. Flores’ versatility becomes a real asset again. The lineup gets a chance to gel, and after that maybe even to spark. Good things.
Belt in the clubhouse is a good thing, too. Nobody would call the Giants a team in desperate need of veteran leadership — I mean, there are veterans everywhere — but Belt is special in terms of what he contributes. The folks who call him Captain, which began when he started calling himself Captain, understand that.
Belt doesn’t owe anyone much in the way of explanation. He’s got two rings and is generally associated with one of the best and most beloved eras of Giants baseball ever. He’s even racked up a couple of nicknames, and let’s face it: when you go from Baby Giraffe to Captain, you’ve covered some ground in your career.
But this is one time when Giants fans could be forgiven for making a simple request that Belt be allowed by the baseball gods to stay on the field. Give the man June, July, August, September. Maybe even a splash of October.
San Francisco has managed to stay within shouting distance of the Padres and Dodgers in an N.L. West that isn’t going to calm down anytime soon. The Giants did that absent several of their best weapons, including Belt, and it’s impressive. It’s asking a lot of them to race into the dog days while constantly playing Who’s On First. Belt sticking around for a while is a great idea.
By the way, that Tuesday game, the one where Kapler looked in his dugout and saw a lot of late-innings options? He called on Belt to pinch-hit in the eighth that day. Belt saw one pitch, which struck him on his left foot.
He’s fine. But, you know, baseball is like that. Things happen, and they sure seem to happen to Belt a lot. What if, for the next few months, they just don’t?