DENVER – By clout or by drought, Joe Panik and Pablo Sandoval both scrawled their names into the Giants’ record books in an 11-3 victory Wednesday night.
First, the drought: Sandoval came off the bench, waggled his bat and rocked his weight forward. He was sitting on a streak of 36 hitless at-bats, matching the longest by a Giant since the franchise moved to Seals Stadium in 1958.
The streak belongs solely to the Panda now, and here was the most unexpected part of his pinch strikeout in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies: the player who spent a decade swinging at everything, whose eye-hand coordination knew no limitations, who could barrel up pitches at neck level or on his shoe tops or so far outside that a canoe paddle would serve him better, instead watched as the third strike popped into the catcher’s mitt.
Sandoval broke the franchise record that Johnnie LeMaster had so fittingly held since 1984. LeMaster was such a light-hitting infielder that he once wore “BOO” on the back of his jersey in response to heckling fans.
By extreme contrast, Panik conjured memories of a different name in franchise lore while setting a franchise record with 12 hits in a three-game series.
He went 5 for 6 on Wednesday and his final single up the middle broke the previous record set when Mike Benjamin memorably went 11 for 16 at Wrigley Field in 1995. (Benjamin preceded that series against the Cubs with a four-hit game at Candlestick Park; his 14 hits over a three-game span remains a major league record.)
Hall of Famers Freddie Lindstrom and Bill Terry also collected 11 hits in a three-game series during the franchise’s New York era.
In two weeks’ time, Panik has gone from the concussion list to unconscious at the plate. He sprayed hits to every corner of Coors Field while going 3 for 4 on Monday, 4 for 5 on Tuesday and then adding two doubles and two three singles in six at-bats on Wednesday.
And here’s proof that baseball is a savage game: Panik also became the first Giant with 10 hits in a three-game series since Sandoval did it against the Cincinnati Reds in 2010.
It is hard to envision Sandoval in a Giants uniform much longer, even if the Giants can have him for the minimum salary for the next two years. But prior to the game, Giants manager Bruce Bochy hinted that the experiment would continue, and that Sandoval, after getting a day off against a left-handed pitcher at Coors Field, would return to the lineup Friday in a road series opener against the Chicago White Sox.
First, the Giants will have a day off to savor their only victory in 10 games at Coors Field this season. Joe Panik was the anti-Panda and Johnny Cueto struck out seven while spinning five encouraging innings in a ballpark where pitchers often have trouble gripping the ball.
The lineup didn’t suffer on a night when Buster Posey got the day off because of a hand contusion. Austin Slater ripped a two-out, bases-loaded single on the first big league pitch he’d seen in two months and Mac Williamson launched a pinch home run as Cueto won his first decision since June 30.
Panik entered the series hitting .267. He departed with a .285 average. He credited a suggestion from hitting coach Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, who advised him to choke up a half-inch to lighten up the bat and gain some bat speed.
“You know what? It is (gratifying), especially in September and after the concussion,” Panik said. “I have the opportunity to get back out there and be healthy, and we’ve all talked about playing for each other, and you want to finish strong. So to get on a little hot streak is never a bad thing.”
This was the kind of little hot streak that required helicopters dropping flame retardant. The Giants rallied in the ninth to get Panik one more at-bat, and he came through with the record breaker.
“I’m very encouraged with how he’s come back from the concussion,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said prior to the game. He’s obviously seeing the ball well right now, and you’re seeing the really good Joe Panik. He’s driving the ball and hitting to all fields.
“Joe is pretty consistent and he doesn’t let a skid go too long. He’s a simple swing guy. But when he gets going, you get what you’re seeing now.”
It is easily overlooked on a team with so many core players signed to long-term contracts, but Panik has the most to gain financially from shoring up his numbers in September. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time – he missed qualifying last year by a few weeks of service time – and every little bit helps in negotiations.
Panik also knows this: Giants executive vice president Brian Sabean and GM Bobby Evans have said that they will have to be creative as they seek to salvage rather than scuttle a last-place roster to contend in 2018 – and that means listening to trade overtures for players they consider part of their core.
With no long-term salary obligations weighing down his value, Panik would be among the more flexible and attractive assets that other clubs would seek to acquire as the Giants try to address a glaring need in center field, the left side of the bullpen and a lineup that lacks right-handed power.
Those salary obligations – the Giants have more than $100 million committed even as far away as the 2020 season — also make Panik’s prospects hazy for a multiyear contract.
“I try not to think about it, but obviously it’s in the back of your mind,” Panik said. “You see how the roster is constructed. … When it comes down to it, I’m really happy here. I love the Bay Area. My wife loves the Bay Area. If something happens in the offseason, then it happens.
“I’m really just trying to keep playing hard because when it comes down to it, I’m a competitor. I don’t want to give an inch to anyone.”