On his first day with the Giants last season, Matt Duffy recalled on Thursday, right fielder Hunter Pence came up to him with a simple message:
“Hey, we’re going to need you to help us win games.”
Those few words, Duffy said, went a long way. Immediately, he felt a part of the Giants’ clubhouse. He knew he would be asked to contribute, rather than “just exist” and take up a spot on the roster.
Within a year, of course, Duffy would go from Double-A infielder to the Giants’ starting third baseman at 24 years old. And his quick impact upon being called up has mirrored that of several other Giants players recently. Joe Panik went from the minors to being an All-Star in little more than a year. Chris Heston, currently in Triple-A getting a rest, has buoyed the Giants’ rotation in his rookie season with 11 wins.
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And it now appears Kelby Tomlinson is pushing to join that crowd. Called up to help fill in for an injured Panik, the 25-year-old Tomlinson is batting .346 in his first 20 games for the Giants and provided the highlight of a 9-1 win over the Cubs on Thursday by hitting a grand slam for his first major-league home run in the eighth inning.
Tomlinson, like Panik and Duffy, does not possess one tool that jumps to the eye. But he has shown the ability to impact games in ways often not so overt as Thursday’s slam. On Wednesday night, he allowed the Giants to score a run when, with the bases loaded and two outs, he got a big lead and jump from first base on a ground ball to shortstop and beat out the potential force-play at second.
Asked about the youth wave the Giants have produced, manager Bruce Bochy credited the organization’s scouting and development staff. He said the Giants have done a good job of drafting “complete players – there’s not one tool that sounds out on them, but they do a nice job defensively, they’re athletic.” He did, however, single out one trait that the recent call-ups have seemed to have.
“What I’m pleased with is their poise, their sense of comfort up here, their sense of belonging,” Bochy said. “They’re not in awe of anything.”
Bochy said that starts in spring training, where the Giants’ minor-league facility is close to the major-league one and prospects are able to interact with veterans. Duffy said that during the season, veterans in the Giants clubhouse make a point of making the younger players feel welcome and a part of the clubhouse, as Pence did for him.
An example of that occurred Thursday. After the eighth inning ended, Tomlinson jogged out to second base for defense and the AT&T Park scoreboard showed a close-up of him with a caption about his first big-league homer while the crowd applauded. Marlon Byrd, a 14-year veteran just traded to the Giants, saw that Tomlinson hadn’t noticed he was on the big screen, and told the rookie to smile and soak it in.
“You’re young, you hit your first home run, it’s a big one, grand slam,” Byrd said. “You gotta enjoy it, gotta smile.”
Tomlinson, who started drawing comparisons to Duffy as soon as he got called up, said he felt he had “quite a bit of confidence coming in here” because he was playing well in the minors. But he said transitioning to the majors is not so much about confidence as keeping an even perspective -- not getting too caught up in the good moments, such as his grand slam Thursday, but not getting down about struggles, either.
A reporter asked Tomlinson what it is the Giants are doing right in their farm system to get players ready for the majors at such a young age and said it’s “kind of tough to pin-point one thing.” But he offered this theory:
“I know all the way through the system, they kind of want you to play the right way. Maybe not necessarily tools(-wise), but they want you to be able to come in and have a good at-bat. That’s what they teach.
“And when you come up here it’s the same thing. They don’t necessarily need you to hit far or (have) certain tools. It’s how can you get the job done and help the team win? The Giants seem to really focus on that as you’re coming up, and developing that part of your game.”
▪ Tomlinson’s day could pretty much be summed up by this quote:
“When you’re playing in the yard (as a kid), you don’t just dream of hitting a base hit, you always dream of a home run, and it being a grand slam. It was kind of surreal to actually do it.”
Tomlinson said he did get the ball back from his first home run. He traded a bat, signed baseball and some batting gloves for it.
▪ Madison Bumgarner’s day could also be summed up by one quote from Bochy:
“Bum was Bum today.”
The left-hander allowed two hits and struck out 12 in six innings, pulled after 98 pitches with the Giants up 5-1 at the time and Bochy seeing a chance to give his ace a rest. The Giants had already gotten quite a month from Bumgarner. His line in five August starts:
5-0, 1.43 ERA, 23 hits allowed, six walks, 53 strikeouts.
Bumgarner also hit two more home runs than he allowed (zero) and added a double, so he had half as many extra-base hits as he allowed (six).
“Right now (my) body feels good, command feels good, delivery,” Bumgarner said. “The main this is just having my delivery right. The rest kind of falls in.”
Bumgarner also made an acrobatic defensive play in the third inning Thursday, reaching behind him while covering first base to glove Brandon Belt’s high throw and managing to step on the bag as he spun around. Bochy said he thought it was “one of the better plays that we’ve had all year.”
So Bumgarner knew where the bag was all the time, right?
“Yeah,” the left-hander dead-panned, “let’s go with that.”
▪ Byrd added a three-run homer of his own in the third inning that put the Giants ahead by four at the time. It was his fourth career homer against Cubs starter Dan Haren, and he’s now 15-for-36 (.417) lifetime against the right-hander.
Byrd seems like a good quote and had a good explanation of the at-bat after the game. He said Haren had surprised him earlier in the game by throwing him mostly fastballs instead of his signature cutter, which Byrd was looking for. So Byrd stopped looking for the cutter and jumped when Haren left a straight fastball over the middle of the plate.
Bumgarner, still in the game at that point, appreciated the support.
“He’s 2-for-2 with three-run homers on my day,” said Bumgarner, who also started when Byrd homered in his Giants debut last week. “I’ll definitely take it.”
▪ Duffy said his sprained right ankle was “touch and go” when he came in Thursday morning, but he felt OK playing the entire game on it and contributed an RBI single during the Giants’ four-run third inning.
The Giants might get one of their many injured players back on Friday. Angel Pagan was in the clubhouse after the game and could be activated from the 15-day DL (knee).
▪ Bochy was asked if Tomlinson’s performance has let the Giants feel more comfortable bringing Panik back from back inflammation at a careful pace.
“We’re hoping to get Joe back and have them both,” Bochy said. “It’s going to make us that much stronger, the bench stronger. But it does allow you not to rush Joe too much.”
Panik ran on the field Thursday morning for the first time since his injury and has been taking ground balls and swings in the cage. If he continues to get better, Bochy said, he could take batting practice on the field this weekend.
▪ The Giants now welcome in the Cardinals, owners of baseball’s best record, for a three game series starting Friday. The pitching probables:
Friday: RHP Mike Leake (9-6, 3.44) vs. RHP Michael Wacha (15-4, 2.80)
Saturday: RHP Ryan Vogelsong (9-9, 4.05) vs. RHP Lance Lynn (10-8, 2.94)
Sunday: RHP Matt Cain (2-4, 6.15) vs. LHP Jaime Garcia (6-4, 1.77)