How Pablo Sandoval's Return Jumps Giants Ahead of Dodgers in NL West Race

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterAugust 15, 2012

Pablo Sandoval drove in a run in the Giants' 6-1 win over the Nationals.
Pablo Sandoval drove in a run in the Giants' 6-1 win over the Nationals.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Pablo Sandoval returned to the San Francisco Giants' starting lineup Tuesday (Aug. 14) night for the first time since July 24.

The Giants actually activated their third baseman the day before, but manager Bruce Bochy eased Sandoval back by bringing him for a ninth-inning pitch-hitting appearance.

In his first game back as a starter—a 6-1 win over the Washington Nationals—Sandoval went 0-for-2 with a pair of groundouts, one walk, one run scored and an RBI on a sacrifice fly. 

Getting him back is a significant addition that could provide the crucial edge to the Giants as they're locked in a duel with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the NL West and possibly a Wild Card playoff spot. 

It's a cliche, but this is like making a big deal at the trade deadline for the Giants. How many teams can add a player batting .299/.352/.491 with eight home runs and 33 RBI to their lineup in mid-August?

Sandoval was San Francisco's third-best offensive player before going to the disabled list with a strained hamstring. Upon his return, his .843 OPS was topped only by Melky Cabrera (.911) and Buster Posey (.953) among the Giants' regular starters. 

With Sandoval back in the lineup, Bochy can alternate between left- and right-handed hitters in spots one through eight in the batting order. That will force opposing managers to burn through a lot of relievers in later innings when facing the Giants. 

As a switch-hitter who will bat in the fifth spot behind Posey on most nights, Sandoval also makes it difficult to pitch around the Giants catcher. He not only provides a potent bat after Posey in the batting order, but also creates a tough matchup being able to bat left- or right-handed. It's not an easy call for the other manager to just bring in a situational lefty out of the bullpen to face Sandoval. 

This also pushes Hunter Pence to the No. 6 spot in the lineup, giving San Francisco a deeper lineup that will make opposing pitchers work through five or six innings. There's not necessarily a weak spot in the batting order until the eighth or ninth slots. 

Pence hasn't hit terribly well since joining the Giants, batting .186/.210/.305 as of Aug. 14. But he has driven in 11 runs, and Sandoval batting in front of him will provide plenty more RBI opportunities. 

According to CSN Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly, Bochy also intends to use Sandoval at first base on occasion. Given that Sandoval hurt his hamstring while stretching for a throw at first base, however, the Giants will probably proceed cautiously with those plans until he shows he's fully healthy. 

But it's understandable why Bochy wants the option of using Sandoval at first base.

Brandon Belt could then sit against a left-handed starting pitcher, and Bochy can use Marco Scutaro at third and Ryan Theriot at second. Scutaro could also play shortstop with Joaquin Arias filling in at third base. That sort of versatility throughout the lineup gives Bochy plenty of pieces to move around in order to get the best matchup at the beginning of the game or in later innings. 

Can the Dodgers match that kind of depth and versatility in their lineup?

Shane Victorino provides a presence at the top of the batting order, as evidenced by an eight-game hitting streak during which he's batted .343 (12-for-35) with three doubles, a home run and six RBI. 

The lineup takes a big drop in the No. 2 spot, however, with Mark Ellis (.258 average, .703 OPS) or Juan Uribe (.186 average, .529 OPS) batting behind Victorino. 

Hanley Ramirez is batting .297/.369/.419 with 20 RBI since coming over from the Marlins, giving the Dodgers a strong middle-of-the-order with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. 

After Ramirez, the Dodgers lineup takes a big drop to James Loney (.251 average, .626 OPS). But Luis Cruz (.270 average, .726 OPS) and A.J. Ellis (.279 average, .823 OPS) provide some production batting in front of the pitcher. 

However, with Juan Rivera, Adam Kennedy and Elian Herrera on his bench, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly doesn't have the same options off the bench that Bochy now enjoys. The team certainly isn't going to add a hitter of Sandoval's caliber in the days and weeks to come either. 

Those holes in the lineup and on the roster could end up being the major difference between the Dodgers and Giants for the NL West title and a possible Wild Card playoff spot. 

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