Boy, did the San Francisco Giants need what Pablo Sandoval has been providing them lately. The veteran third baseman, who homered for a second straight night in lifting the Giants to a win on Wednesday, has been on a tear since the very end of July. Not coincidentally, so has San Francisco.
In all, Sandoval went 3-for-5 with three RBI to propel his club to a 7-4 victory Wednesday over the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers, who now sport the same 62-52 record as the Giants.
The switch-hitting 27-year-old started things off with a line-drive single off right-hander Yovani Gallardo to plate the game's first run in the first inning. And Sandoval capped the game by putting the final touches on the win with a two-run shot in the eighth off lefty reliever Tom Gorzelanny to give the Giants some breathing room an inning after Milwaukee had climbed back to within a run at 4-3.
The win keeps San Francisco 2.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West and puts the Giants in the top spot in the NL wild-card standings by themselves after the St. Louis Cardinals fell to the Boston Red Sox.
Sandoval's hot streak has been a key to the team's recent 5-2 surge following an ill-timed six-game schneid over the final week of July.
In the past seven contests, the Kung Fu Panda has gone 12-for-29 (.414) with two homers—both coming in the past two games—and 11 RBI. For the year, Sandoval is now triple-slashing .285/.332/.445 with 51 runs, 14 homers and 55 RBI.
Speaking of runs batted in, there's this, which Sandoval achieved with his eighth-inning homer Wednesday:
Pablo Sandoval ties a Giants franchise record with 3 straight 3-RBI games (last done by Jeff Kent in 2002)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 7, 2014
Six of those seven games, by the way, have come with San Francisco in the middle of a 10-game road trip that is tied for its longest of 2014. The club finishes up with the rubber game in Milwaukee on Thursday before heading to Kansas City for the final three.
While the Giants remain very much in it in the West, they need to keep it up, because the race is just as tight for the wild card. In fact, after San Francisco and St. Louis, there are still three teams—the Pittsburgh Pirates, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds—all within three games of a playoff spot.
Another reason the Giants need Sandoval and the rest of the lineup to keep it up? The team's offense ranks 18th in MLB in runs scored. That's only slightly below league average, but the unit checks in even worse in batting average (.244, 25th), on-base percentage (.305, 25th) and on-base plus slugging (.685, 24th).
Things were especially awful in July, too:
With Sandoval swinging as well as he has been over the past week or so, the Giants have it in them to hit enough to make up for the loss of formerly steady and durable Matt Cain. The right-hander, one of the key arms in what had been one of the better rotations in baseball in recent years, will have surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow and is out for the remainder of 2014, as Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
While Cain is down and out, the hitting should get another boost with the return of Angel Pagan, who is set to come back for Thursday's finale against the Brewers, according to Schulman. The center fielder and leadoff hitter was sporting a .307/.356/.411 line before a back injury sidelined him since June 14.
That would give San Francisco a very potent one-through-six with Pagan followed by Hunter Pence (team-highs of 80 runs and 15 homers), former NL MVP Buster Posey (team-high 57 RBI), and the red-hot Sandoval followed by Brandon Belt and Mike Morse, both of whom can do damage when they're going well.
Essentially, this recent burst by Sandoval has come at just the right time, bridging the final stretch as the lineup looks to be on the verge of finally being back to normal for the first time since Belt suffered his broken hand in mid-May.
There is, of course, one last element to Sandoval's good timing. He's set to become a free agent for the first time at season's end, so his performance of late and down the stretch is going to go a long way toward what happens on the contract front in a few short months.
The Giants have made it clear in the past that they have concerns over the hefty Sandoval's struggles to maintain a proper playing weight, especially as he ages. Injuries have also been a problem in past seasons, as Sandoval broke both hamate bones in consecutive years (2011 and 2012) and dealt with hamstring and foot strains, too.
To his credit, though, Sandoval worked to get himself in much better shape last offseason, and he's played in all but three games this year.
Sandoval has even been getting some recognition for his defense recently, winning ESPN's defender of the month honor for July, per Chris Haft of MLB.com.
"He had some work to do," manager Bruce Bochy told Haft, regarding Sandoval's need to address his conditioning and agility over the winter. Now that he has, though? "He's got to be considered one of the top third basemen."
That's quite a turnaround from mid-May when Sandoval was hitting under .200 with but two homers and eight RBI in his first 38 games as of May 13. Since then, he's hitting .332 with 12 homers and 47 RBI in 73 games.
If Sandoval can keep that up—or at least something close to that—then the Giants should return to October to pursue a shot at their third World Series title in five years.
And if Sandoval helps drive the Giants to another postseason trip, then the question will be just how much they're willing to pony up to keep the free-agent-to-be's heart—and bat—in San Francisco.
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