All Joe Panik had to do in the ninth inning Wednesday was hit a fly ball deep enough that speedy Gregor Blanco could score the winning run from third base with one out -- and Panik did, giving the Giants a 3-2 win over the Dodgers. But in the Dodgers’ opinion, Blanco shouldn’t have been on third base at all.
On Brandon Belt’s preceding single to left field, Blanco raced from second to third base. Blanco appeared to be slowing down as he rounded third base, but as he crossed the bag he made contact with Giants third-base coach Roberto Kelly, who had was standing very close to the base with his hands up telling Blanco to stop.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly almost immediately jogged out asking for interference on Kelly. His argument went unheeded. Blanco remained on third base and scored when Panik lofted J.P. Howell’s first pitch to center field.
Major League Baseball Rule 7.09 (h) states that it is interference when, "In the judgment of the umpire, the base coach at third base, or first base, by touching or holding the runner, physically assists him in returning to or leaving third base or first base."
Crew chief Fieldin Culbreth cited the key word in that rule -- "assists" -- when explaining Wednesday night’s ruling to a pool reporter after the game.
"Don came out and asked me did I see (Kelly) grab (Blanco)," Culbreth said. "I told him no, I did not see him grab him. There ends up being contact, but the rule is pretty specific in the fact that he had to touch and physically grab him and assist him in returning to the base. That did not happen.
"If he doesn’t physically assist him in returning to the base then there’s no interference."
Mattingly did not sound satisfied with the explanation.
"The third base coach blocked him," Mattingly said, according to the AP. "That’s the way I’ve been taught, maybe not, that the third base coach is not allowed to block the runner from continuing on. It’s obviously interference. They missed the call basically. I don’t know who was supposed to be watching, but they weren’t watching."
Replays show there was clearly contact between Kelly and Blanco, which Culbreth did not deny. But Blanco argued that it had no effect on his intention as a baserunner.
"It was kind of weird, but at the same time I was already stopping at third," Blanco said. "It wasn’t like he stopped me or he told me to stop. I was slowing down … I knew that with that ball I was not going to score."
Kelly, who did not speak to reporters after the game, appeared first to be waving Blanco home before giving him a stop sign. But as he held his hands up, Kelly also moved very close to the base, where it would have been difficult for Blanco to avoid him. Kelly kept his hands up and did not appear to restrain Blanco or push him back to the bag.
Blanco said it’s the first time he could remember coming into contact with the base coach during a play. Kelly is in his first season as the Giants’ third-base coach, replacing Tim Flannery after spending multiple seasons as the team’s first-base coach. The incident lent some added drama to what became a walk-off win for the Giants, but Blanco said that he at no point thought he would be called out because of it.
"I don’t feel like it stopped me at all," Blanco said. "I was going to stop anyway."
* While Mattingly came out to argue the call with Culbreth at third, Panik stood near the plate waiting for his at-bat. Mattingly then took up his case with home-plate umpire Clint Fagan before returning to the dugout -- only to come back onto the field again to address his pitcher, J.P. Howell, and align his defense with a fifth infielder.
Meanwhile, Panik waited.
"My first reaction was, now I know what an NFL kicker feels like getting iced at the end of a game," Panik said.
Panik said during the delay he tried to "kind of tune everything out and make sure I was loose and relaxed." With the Dodgers playing five infielders and the outfielders shallow, Panik went up looking for a pitch he could hit in the air and got it on Howell’s first pitch for the game-winning sacrifice fly.
It was Panik’s first walk-off RBI in the majors, and he said he couldn’t remember the last time he had one at any level.
"I guess it’s been a while if I can’t remember," Panik said. "But it definitely feels good to be put in that situation and come through."
The game winning rally started with Buster Posey lining a single back up the middle off right-hander Chris Hatcher, who then nicked Justin Maxwell’s elbow with a fastball. The Dodgers brought in the left-hander Howell to face Belt, who began the at-bat hitting .143 on the season but lined an opposite-field single to left to load the bases.
Panik had entered the game in the seventh inning as a pinch hitter and worked a walk. In the ninth-inning at-bat, manager Bruce Bochy said he liked most that Panik "didn’t wait around. He got the first pitch he saw, it was a pitch he could handle and lift, and he got it plenty deep enough."
Even after being iced.
"I guess I hit the field goal right away," Panik said with a grin.
* Panik’s at-bat underscored a trend for the Giants in this game and, so far, the two wins in this series against the Dodgers: Better at-bats with runners in scoring position. Tuesday they had three hits in those situations in the first four innings. They went 2-for-4 in those at-bats Wednesday, but scored on a third-inning grounder to shortstop by Nori Aoki with a runner on third and the corners playing in, and of course on Panik’s sacrifice fly. Matt Duffy also had an RBI single off Clayton Kershaw in the third -- Duffy’s third hit in four career at-bats at that point against the best pitcher in the league.
"It’s been a lot better," Bochy said. "We had some really good at-bats with runners on."
Bochy also cited the third-inning walk drawn by Brandon Crawford, which didn’t come with a runner in scoring position but put men on first and second with nobody out against Kershaw. Madison Bumgarner executed a two-strike sacrifice bunt after failing an earlier attempt, and Aoki and Duffy drove the runners in to give the Giants a 2-0 lead.
As Panik pointed out, you have to take advantage of those opportunities against a pitcher like Kershaw -- and maybe that was the good thing about facing Kershaw on Wednesday night for the Giants. As poorly as they’ve hit in clutch situations early this season, they knew they had to lock in during those at-bats Wednesday, and produced better results.
"Especially when you’ve got a guy like that, that has the stuff he has, you have to have a good game plan, a good approach, and really focus in," Panik said. "You saw it the past two days that we’ve been taking advantage of everything we’ve been given. So definitely something to be happy with."
* The Bumgarner-Kershaw showdown came out suitably even, though neither starter did figure into the decision. Kershaw gave up the two early runs and was lifted in the seventh for a pinch-hitter. That hitter, Alex Guerrero, crushed a two-run home run off Bumgarner that tied the game and wound up being Bumgarner’s final pitch.
Bumgarner said he hadn’t watched a replay and that, "I know it felt like a pretty decent pitch." But he said he was trying to go up and in to Guerrero, and while the pitch was up, it also appeared to be out over the plate. Guerrero hit it about halfway up the bleachers in left field.
Other than that, and the 0-2 pitch that catcher A.J. Ellis had hit for a single just before the Guerrero at-bat, Bumgarner said it was a positive outing after two rough starts in which he had allowed nine runs on 16 hits in 10 innings. He pitched through traffic for much of this outing but stranded runners in five of the first six innings and said he still felt strong going into the seventh despite being at 101 pitches.
"I felt pretty good tonight," Bumgarner said. "Felt like the stuff was good, command was good. Pretty happy with it, yeah."
* The Giants have reason to be happy with securing a series win already against a Dodger team that came in having won seven games in a row. They won a Kershaw start and have played better all-around baseball the past 18 innings than in the first seven games to start this homestand, of which they won just one.
"Really important," Blanco said. "That makes us believe in ourselves again."
The Giants can go for the sweep Thursday behind Ryan Vogelsong, who will take Jake Peavy’s spot in the rotation at least for now. It remains to be seen if a return to starting can help Vogelsong shake his early April struggles: He has allowed 12 earned runs over 10 1/3 innings and opponents are hitting .400 against him (20-for-50).
* One last note: It was an adventurous night for Giants on the basepaths even before the Blanco-Kelly run-in. After a single in the sixth, Nori Aoki was picked off first base by Kershaw -- only to scamper around the tag of Justin Turner and back to the base safely. Mattingly argued that ruling, too -- likely that Aoki was out of the basepath -- but again to no avail.
"These guys, they’ve gotten creative on slides and getting around tags," Bochy said. "He is nimble. He realized he got picked off there and did a great job of not just stopping, but trying to get back, and avoided it. I didn’t think he left the baseline."
Aoki’s triumph was short-lived. He tried to steal second on strike three to Matt Duffy and was thrown out for a double play. You can’t win ’em all.