San Francisco Giants

Giants’ Belt: ‘It doesn’t suck to start off the season pretty good’

SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Belt, who has a live bat through the first eight games of the 2014 season, showed a pretty impressive deadpan as well when a reporter asked him after the Giants’ 7-3 home-opener win Tuesday if his hot start is validation not only for his own expectations but of the team’s hopes for him.

"Yeah I think so," Belt said. "It doesn’t suck to start off the season pretty good."

Pretty good is something of an understatement. Belt homered again in his first at-bat on Tuesday -- a two-run shot off Diamondbacks right-hander Trevor Cahill -- for his fifth in the first eight games. The last Giants player to do that to start a season: Jose Cruz, Jr., in the 2003 season.

The home runs tie Belt with Arizona’s Mark Trumbo for the major-league lead, and Belt is batting .343 with nine RBIs. There was some question while Belt was starting fast in Arizona and Los Angeles of whether his power especially would translate back home to AT&T Park, where just 13 of his 37 career home runs had come before Tuesday. He did his part to answer them Tuesday by driving a 2-1 sinker from Cahill over the high brick wall in right-center to give the Giants a 2-0 first inning lead.

"I think I’ve struggled enough," he said later, "that I’ve figured some stuff out."

The adjustments Belt made in the second half last season -- re-positioning his hands and moving back in the batter’s box -- are well-documented, and he said carrying those over have made a difference. Beyond that, he attributed his start to "in a word, balance."

"I’m just more balanced than I have been in the past," Belt said. "It’s helping me see the ball a little bit better and helping me get better contact."

There’s also the natural maturation that accompanies more time in the big leagues. Belt, still just 25, said he has a better idea now of "knowing what pitches I can’t hit, knowing what I do well at the plate." He’s also gaining confidence "by the day." It has all added up to the kind of start that has eluded Belt the past two years, when he had strong springs but cooled off in April.

"He’s gotten behind the eight ball in previous years," manager Bruce Bochy said. "You get off to a rough start, then you start battling the numbers. And he doesn’t have to do that this year. So hopefully it’s going to help him relax a little bit more."

Bochy said it is rewarding to see Belt swinging this way right now. Belt, remember, was battling the flu toward the end of spring training and "wasn’t swinging the bat that well," Bochy said. "And it seemed like he’d lost a lot of strength there.

"But when the ball rang, he was ready. And he’s doing a nice job helping carry us."

* Bochy can say "helping" because the Giants’ longer lineup is continuing to produce, even with two key members off to slow starts. Angel Pagan had two more hits Tuesday and has hit safely in all eight games so far, with six of those being multi-hit games. He’s batting .441 in the leadoff spot. Michael Morse had two hits and drove in two with a two-out single in the third. Brandon Crawford added a two-out, two-run hit in the fifth.

The Giants have now scored 32 of their 47 runs on the season with two outs, and they’re batting .450 (18-for-40) with two outs and runners in scoring position. That’s an area they struggled in last year, batting .238 as a team, and Crawford said their approach in those situations was the subject of several hitters’ meetings this spring.

"Last year I think we had it where we wouldn’t be hitting, so we’d try and do too much," Crawford said. "Like maybe we weren’t playing defense, so we’d try and do too much on defense. So I think there’s a little more sense of trust this year."

Crawford said that harkens back to two years ago, when there was a sense of confidence among players that if they didn’t come up with the big hit or big play, the next guy would pick them up. Belt had a similar take on the early offensive surge.

"I think we’ve been around each other, we know what to expect from each other," Belt said. "We know we’re going to pick each other up. We have most of our team here. I think we just had some key injuries at bad times last year, so we know that if we have the whole group together, we’re going to be really good."

* So far, the plan to lengthen that lineup with the addition of Morse has paid off. Morse is hitting .391after his two-run single and a fifth-inning double that should have been a deep flyout to left, but that Arizona’s Mark Trumbo appeared to lose in the sun, allowing it to bounce on the warning track and over the wall, setting up Crawford’s two-run single.

"He’s going to provide a lot of protection for guys," Belt said.

Right now he’s helping make up for slow starts by Pablo Sandoval (.161) and Hunter Pence (.125). Pence did score a pair of runs Tuesday after reaching on a fielder’s choice and a walk.

* We’ve come this far without even mentioning Tim Hudson, who was very good again in his second start for the Giants -- and second against the Diamondbacks -- going eight innings and allowing three runs (two earned) for his second win.

Hudson threw 101 pitches and walked off the mound to a loud ovation after getting Paul Goldschmidt to ground out for the final out of the eighth. It’s another offseason move that so far has generated nothing but positive returns. Hudson has historically dominated the Diamondbacks -- he’s now 9-1 with a 2.01 ERA against them in his career -- but notably he has pitched deep into both outings this year showing no effects from missing the end of last season after ankle surgery, and is generating ground balls at his normal pace.

Hudson said Tuesday he’s "not where I want to be" in terms of fitness after the surgery and rehab disrupted his normal offseason. So far it hasn’t been an issue.

"We’ve had some nice weather," Hudson said. "Hopefully (pitching deep into games) is something I can still do. Definitely I’ll take these first two starts."

His eight innings Tuesday marked Hudson’s longest start since June 26, 2012, when he also faced the Diamondbacks and also threw eight innings. There’ll be more in The Bee tomorrow on Hudson from columnist Marcos Breton, so keep an eye out for that.

* Brandon Hicks got the honor of starting the home opener at second base but had a rough day. Hicks struck out three times and also made a throwing error trying to turn a double play in the second inning that allowed the Diamondbacks’ first run to score.

The double-play turn is considered one of the biggest adjustments for a natural shortstop transitioning to play second -- like Hicks -- because he can’t see the runner bearing down on him. Hicks has previously said he’s pretty comfortable with the turn, but in this case, it looked like he just rushed the throw.

* In one pre-game note, assistant general manager Bobby Evans was on KNBR this morning and was asked about extension talks with Sandoval. Evans made it sound like talks have been tabled for the time being, saying: "It’s probably something that we’ll revisit after the season at this point."

* Also, in case you missed it, BatKid threw out the first pitch to Matt Cain, with this photo capturing their walk out to the mound.

* It’s a pretty trivial stat, but the Giants are now 12-3 in home openers at AT&T Park and have won six in a row. It’s Tim Lincecum on the mound tomorrow against Arizona right-hander Bronson Arroyo, with first pitch at 7:15 p.m.

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