As his Giants teammates begin their second week of Cactus League games, second baseman Marco Scutaro continues his slow march back toward what he hopes will be normalcy.
Four or five days ago, Scutaro began taking ground balls. On Wednesday, he hit off a tee for the first time this spring.
The Giants are taking it slow with their 38-year-old infielder following his injury-riddled 2013 season. They hoped Scutaro might make his Cactus League debut this weekend, but manager Bruce Bochy now says that is unlikely. Scutaro said Thursday he was considering hitting some soft toss later in the day.
It’s not an ideal situation for the Giants or the man they project as their Opening Day second baseman and No. 2 hitter. Still, soft toss is encouraging. After a season in which Scutaro was hampered by back pain and a winter spent strengthening his core in an effort to mitigate those problems, Scutaro wasn’t sure how he would feel the first time he swung a bat. His verdict Thursday: “OK.”
“My back has been much better,” he said. “We’re still not where we want to be, but it’s a matter of keep working, keep getting my back stronger, my core.”
That has meant considerable time in the training room and weight room this spring and little on the field, which the Giants say is by design. Bochy said Scutaro hasn’t suffered a setback, and he’s looking forward to the day the Giants can “get him out on the field (to) see what we have there.”
Last season, what they had was a diminished player, despite Scutaro’s determination to prove otherwise. He played in 127 games and batted .297, and he was named by Bochy to his first All-Star team as an injury replacement. But he hit .262 with seven extra-base hits in 46 games after the All-Star break, the back pain that began in spring sapping his ability to drive balls, compounded by a damaged tendon in his left pinkie finger from being hit by a pitch in June.
The way Scutaro explains it, he has an unstable right hip, and when the hip moves, the muscles in his lower back “get tired and don’t fire the way they’re supposed to.” Earlier in his career, he said, he could have trainers pull on his right leg “to just get it adjusted and keep going.” That stopped working after his back locked up last spring.
The idea behind his offseason strengthening program, Scutaro said, was to build his core muscles to help hold the hip in place and allow his hips and back muscles to “fire” as he needs them to on his swing. He said he didn’t see much improvement until the past two weeks in Arizona.
“It’s been better, man,” he said. “It’s been way better. Just regular stuff. I’ve been able to sleep better, chill and watching TV is better. … I don’t have that constant nerve pain back there.”
Scutaro was adamant last season about not playing up the effect of his injuries. He was still the second-hardest player to strike out in the majors, doing so once every 16.09 plate appearances, but he admitted of the season: “It was tough.”
“It was pretty much a battle every day to get ready for the game,” he said. “All the stuff I had to go through, and I wasn’t able to do the stuff you normally do (before games). This game’s hard enough when you feel good.”
Scutaro said he’s staying patient as he eases slowly into spring. He found out last year that backs can be tricky – you go to bed one night feeling good, and the next morning you wake up sore and stiff. So while he said he felt good Thursday after hitting the day before, he still isn’t putting a timetable on his first game action.
“We’re not where we want to be yet. (The hip is) still moving a little bit when I do stuff, when I use it,” he said. “I want to get to a point where my core is strong enough to hold it right there. But that’s hard to say. It could be a week – could be less, could be more.”
With less than a month until Opening Day, that may sound slightly unsettling. But Bochy said Wednesday, “More than likely he’s going to be in that two hole.”
Scutaro said he appreciates the Giants’ faith in his recovery. He’s signed through the 2015 season on a three-year deal he landed after helping the Giants win the World Series in 2012, batting .362 in 61 games after being acquired at midseason. Asked if he believes he can be that player again, Scutaro said: “That’s the goal.”
“I mean, I don’t know if I’m going to be the same player or whatever,” he said. “I just want to feel like I have a chance to compete every day.
“Last year, a lot of days, I would show up and it was a struggle. Sore, no strength, that kind of stuff. I just want to feel like I have a chance.”