San Francisco Giants: Bench crew buoys Giants in early part of season

It’s 3:55 p.m. — more than four hours before first pitch — when Nick Hundley, trailing Buster Posey, marches into the clubhouse at AT&T Park. He’s carrying an orange and white binder, containing a trove of stats, scouting reports and proprietary San Francisco Giants baseball info.

Hundley stops briefly at his locker, darts into the bathroom, then jogs down the hallway at the far end of the room, disappearing behind the frosted glass, double doors that lead to the in-house gym.

Hundley is one busy dude — and one productive sub.

At the quarterpole, the backup catcher has twice as many home runs (four) as Posey. The 11-year veteran, who entered the weekend with an .846 OPS, is the perfect embodiment of the 2018 Giants bench. Despite a litany of injuries to starters on the mound and in the field, Hundley and the rest of the San Francisco bench have somehow kept the Giants in the division race.

“They really have helped,” manager Bruce Bochy said on Thursday. “You guys have heard me say it: The bench plays such a critical role in your season and you need those guys to come through for you whether it’s pinch-hitting — or if you’re having injuries to deal with.”

Each afternoon, Bruce Bochy delivers his customary pregame press conference, and the first question — almost without fail — relates to some sort of injury update.

The disabled list currently counts eight — including the top two starters Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner, the incumbent closer (Mark Melancon), the opening day second baseman (Joe Panik) and left fielder (Hunter Pence), plus their respective replacements (Alen Hanson and Mac Williamson). They were missing a third starting pitcher — Jeff Samardzija — at the start of the season.

A similar misfortune befell the Giants a season ago when another extended layoff for Bumgarner highlighted the injury attrition. The departure from 2017 is how much better equipped the Giants are to absorb the body blows. Gone are the likes of Orlando Calixte, Aaron Hill, Jae-gyun Hwang, Chris Marrero, Jarrett Parker, Justin Ruggiano and Drew Stubbs.

Instead, the likes of Hundley, Pablo Sandoval and Gregor Blanco are a primary reason why the Giants have kept their heads above water. Hundley is shining like a part-time All-Star, Sandoval looks more like his even-year iteration than the Boston bust and Blanco — the fan favorite — is back to reprise his role as pinch-hitting wizard.

“All the preparation starts way ahead of time,” said Blanco.

Now in his second act as a Giant, Blanco is a career .278 pinch hitter in 10 seasons. He’s 2-for-3 pinch hitting in 2018, but has started 24 games out of necessity.

“I always say to myself, and I always say to everybody, ‘If you work hard, good things are going to happen,’” Blanco said. “And if they don’t happen, at least you say to yourself, ‘I did my best possible to help the team and I know I’m happy with myself because I prepared for that.’ The preparation, I think, is the most important thing.”

The owner of two rings with the Giants, Blanco also understands the value of intangibles.

When the Giants were preparing to leave on an early-season road trip, Bochy grinned when he saw an impeccably-dressed Blanco from across the room.

“That’s a playoff blazer,” Bochy said, beaming.

Sandoval carries himself with an uncommon joy. One day, he’ll strut around the clubhouse, blurting out the lyrics as the music blares over the speakers. Another day, he’ll hold informal court in the dugout with reporters, smiling and talking to everyone, looking like a little league waiting for first pitch.

“I’m telling you, it’s like, I don’t know how to say it but it’s just like this team always brings in guys that have true passion and love for the game,” Blanco said. “You can talk to any of the guys who are here.”

Aside from the veterans, an unanticipated crew of youngsters has also made its mark. New-swing Williamson was a revelation, if only for a week, but should be returning soon.

Hanson — who was on absolutely no one’s radar before Panik’s thumb injury gave him his opening — had been one of the most dynamic Giants before himself going down with a left hamstring strain in Pittsburgh. The 25-year-old drilled four home runs in 14 games. He’s currently third on the team only to Williamson and Brandon Belt in OPS.

Since the first wave of replacements went down, another group — including outfielder Austin Slater and infielder Miguel Gomez — has cameoed. Chris Shaw, the top pick in the 2015 draft and the owner of 10 Triple-A homers, is the next young Giant to keep an eye on. Fitting the theme of 2018, he’s currently DL’d with a groin injury.

In the indoor batting cages, tucked behind the Giants’ first-base dugout, just before he capped April with a ninth-inning walk-off two-run single against the San Diego Padres, the self-deprecating Hundley was running the numbers. He was trying to predict the situation he’d be in, once he stepped to the plate.

“I knew if I came up, it’s two outs and bases loaded, if the game isn’t tied,” he said. “That was my mindset, to get ready for a two out, bases loaded situation,” Hundley said. “That’s that quick University of Arizona math on my part.”

The Giants reserves aren’t just happy to be in the building; they’re ready to take their shots.

“[Not] everything in life has been given to us easy,” Blanco said. “We always have to work really hard for it — especially the guys on bench.” 

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