ORACLE PARK — Kevin Pillar is not known for his bat. In his first six seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, his offensive wins above replacement was 1.3 per year, and he had a career average of .261 with 55 home runs. He was a capable Major League bat, but the main attraction was his glove. That’s what San Francisco Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi referenced when he made the trade: There are a lot of ways to impact a game, and Pillar’s was his defense.
So, when Pillar came into the Giants fold, it wasn’t all that odd that he struggled at the plate. Coming cross country, leaving the only organization he’d known for nine years, and his only Major League home, Pillar went 2-for-17 to start his tenure with San Francisco.
Then came the grand slam. Then came the bases-clearing double. Then came a blistering 109.5-mph home run that constitued the entirety of the Giants’ offense on Wednesday in a 3-1 loss to the San Diego Padres. While San Francisco’s offense may be fickle, Pillar has become a dependable clutch bat. In a game punctuated by wasted scoring opportunities, Pillar was the lone bright spot for a Giants team that had scored 12 runs in the past two games, but couldn’t get out of its own way on Wednesday.
“Looking back at the game, little things got us,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “That was the difference in the game.”
The Padres scored a run in the third thanks to a botched bunt play by third baseman Evan Longoria, who instead of letting the roller from pitcher Nick Margevicius roll foul, touched it just before it did, then threw wide to first. Manuel Margot then cashed that in with an RBI single to center.
In the fourth, Pillar — this time with nobody on base — pounced on a 2-0, belt-high fastball and pounded it for his second home run in three days, with the exit velocity a blistering 109.5 mph — third-fastest among Giants exit velocities this season. He owns the other two, as well, with a 110.1 groundball single against Tampa Bay in San Francisco’s home opener and his 109.5-mph bases-loaded double off of Joey Lucchesi on Tuesday.
After starting out his Giants career hitting .117, and with no extra-base hits in 10 games across two leagues this season, Pillar and hitting coaches Alonzo Powell and Rick Schu focused on approach once he got settled in San Francisco, and his wife and 15-month old daughter moved out to the Bay on Sunday.
“You can look at pitches that you do more damage on, areas of the plate that you do more damage on, that you hit for a higher average and you slug a little bit higher on,” Pillar said. “Them understanding that and me having a better understanding of where I drive the ball best, what pitches, what location, and really trying to eliminate other spots of the strike zone, it’s kind of an easy fix.”
Six of Pillar’s eight balls hit over 100 mph have come with San Francisco, and four of those have come in the last three days, in which he’s notched three extra-base hits.
Pillar almost had another RBI in the fifth on one not-so-hard-hit ball, when Eric Kratz — aboard on a flyball double that inexplicably dropped between Wil Myers and Margot just shy of the warning track — was cut down at the plate by Manny Machado. The Padres third baseman cut across the field to make the play on the grass on a bouncer by Pillar, and fired high to home. Kratz — who came in standing up, instead of sliding — was initially called safe, but was ruled out upon review. After starting the inning with two on and no out, San Francisco came out of the frame with no runs.
Kratz said that he made the decision to go in standing about halfway down the line, and was going to try and get in the way of the throw. He didn’t realize Machado fielded the ball towards shortstop, which gave him a clearn throwing lane. His thought was that, due to his lack of speed, he would run through home like a runner going through the bag at first.
“I don’t see where the throw’s going, and by the time [the catcher] jumps, I’m two steps from him,” Kratz said. “I just looked like a dummy, because the throw was high, and if I slide, I’m under.”
Instead of pulling ahead, the Giants remained tied, at least, until the top of the sixth, when Machado clanked a high drive off the siding atop Levi’s Landing for his third homer of the season, giving the Padres a 2-1 lead. That was the only real blemish on the day for starter Dereck Rodriguez, who struck out five and allowed just two runs in seven innings, a marked difference from his last two starts, where he couldn’t get out of the sixth.
“That wasn’t a good pitch,” Rodriguez said. “I was trying to go in on him. I didn’t think he got it. I’ve seen better balls hit that didn’t go out, than that one.”
They added another in the ninth thanks to a Hunter Renfroe leadoff triple past a diving Pillar, cashed in by a single from Myers.
San Francisco got a pinch-hit leadoff double from Pablo Sandoval in the bottom of the eighth, but stranded pinch runner Derek Holland at second. San Francisco got two men aboard with one out on a walk and a double in the ninth, but Yangervis Solarte fanned and Brandon Belt popped out to third to end the game.
While the offense during the series against San Diego was more robust than the 25 runs in 10 games the Giants scored to start the season, nine of the 13 runs scored against the Padres were driven in by Pillar. Exciting? Certainly. Sustainable? Perhaps not.