Those who stayed awake long enough to see Hector Sanchez hit a walk-off single shortly after midnight late Tuesday in the Giants’ 3-2, 12-inning win over the Dodgers may also have noticed an interesting exchange between Sanchez and reliever Santiago Casilla the inning before.
With two outs in the 11th, Casilla had just allowed a double to Matt Kemp but had an 0-2 count on second baseman Justin Turner. Sanchez called for a curveball and motioned for Casilla to keep it down. The pitch came in around the low part of the strike zone – and apparently not where Sanchez wanted, as Turner swung and fouled it off.
Before throwing Casilla another ball, Sanchez demonstratively indicated with an abrupt motion of his glove that he’d wanted the pitch lower. As he gave Casilla the sign for the next pitch, he again made it clear he wanted it down. Casilla threw a curveball in the dirt; Turner didn’t swing, but Sanchez blocked the ball and then pointed to his pitcher in a gesture of approval.
“The emotion he’s got for catching, it’s good,” Casilla said Wednesday. “When we throw a pitch, he says, ‘Give me down, I’ve got it. Throw it in the dirt, I’ve got it.’ For me, that’s nice, I like that, because sometimes we have to throw the ball in the ground.”
In this case, a pitch getting past Sanchez would’ve put the potential go-ahead run 90 feet from the plate. If any part of the exchange was surprising, though, it might’ve been a 24-year-old catcher with 159 career games in the majors being so expressive with a 33-year-old veteran reliever.
“The guy on the mound, you try to help him,” Sanchez said when asked about the at-bat. “If he misses a pitch, you have to say, ‘I wanted that pitch down, throw it in the dirt.’ And make sure to block the ball. That kind of thing makes your pitcher confident. He’s not scared to throw the ball in the dirt because he’s confident you can block the pitch.”
It’s this trait of Sanchez’s that manager Bruce Bochy referenced after Tuesday night’s game when asked about the backup catcher’s seeming knack for walk-off hits. Sanchez recorded the fourth of his career when he shot a 1-1 sinker from Brandon League up the middle to score Brandon Crawford with two outs in the 12th.
All four of Sanchez’s walk-off hits have been singles with runners in scoring position in extra innings. Bochy attributed his success in those situations partly to Sanchez being “such a confident kid. He’s a little cocky, but humble. … The kid’s not afraid. He wants to be up there with men on base, and he usually gets off some good swings there.”
Sanchez’s demeanor can often come off as playful. In Arizona this spring, the Giants used him for one game at first base with Brandon Belt out sick – a position Sanchez has not played in a big-league game – and after handling the position deftly, Sanchez left the field remarking to reporters: “I tell you guys, it’s a piece of cake.”
Many days before games, Sanchez can be found at his locker swaying and singing along to music playing over his headphones – sometimes with sunglasses on. After his game-winning hit, as he rounded first base and saw teammates rushing to mob him, Sanchez dropped to the ground to “make their job easy.”
“When you stay up, they drop you down,” Sanchez said. “So this time, I went down and got ready for the punches.”
If anyone would know, it’s Sanchez. Asked why he seems to thrive in those situations, he said: “I just try not to put pressure on myself, try to think about it like a normal at-bat. I’m not thinking, ‘That’s the winning run on second.’ I’m thinking ‘try to get a base hit and stay relaxed,’ you know?”
Sounds simple, but Bochy said he’s still surprised by the number of walk-offs Sanchez has accumulated in his brief major-league career. “It’s one of the hardest things to do in baseball,” Bochy said. “These young players, for the most part, have a difficult time coming off the bench and being relaxed, comfortable.
“It’s not easy for these guys because they haven’t done it, they’re not used to it. So for Hector, at his age, to be comfortable, it does say a lot about him.”
This time, at least, another factor may have been in play. Sanchez joked after the game he was motivated by having to take his daughter to school early Wednesday. So did he wake up in time?
“I didn’t,” Sanchez said with a grin. “My wife woke up, but I couldn’t. It was too early, man. Six in the morning? No way.”