On video, the cutter comes in a little high and a little inside. The left-handed hitter keeps his hands inside the pitch as his hips fire and the barrel of his bat whips through to meet it. The sound on contact is crisp and loud, and from the reaction of the fans sitting behind the plate, they know immediately that it is a home run.
The batter in the video is former Giants third baseman Bill Mueller, at this point playing for the Boston Red Sox. The pitcher is Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, owner of perhaps the best cut fastball ever, a pitch responsible for so much shattered lumber that during his final season the Minnesota Twins presented Rivera with a chair made of broken bats.
The video, of Mueller hitting a game-winning homer off Rivera on July 24, 2004, at Fenway Park in Boston, is the one that Giants second baseman Joe Panik watched – and watched – while sitting at his locker before Thursday’s Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Then, in his second at-bat, Panik hit the second home run of his major-league career – on a cutter from Adam Wainwright.
Gregor Blanco, whose locker is next to Panik’s, noticed the impromptu film session and mentioned it on KNBR (680-AM), the Giants’ flagship radio station. Before the Giants’ workout at AT&T Park on Saturday, Panik, who grew up in New York a Yankees fan, recounted how recalling one of the five walk-off home runs Rivera allowed in his career helped him hit the first of three Giants homers in their pennant-clinching win.
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“In Game 1, Wainwright beat me with his cutter,” Panik said. “The first time I faced him (on July 2), I got a couple hits off him, but last time I struggled. So I was like, I knew he had a good cutter, and the other guy (who did), growing up a Yankees fan, was Rivera.
“He dominated lefties with it. The only lefty I could think of that hit him well was Bill Mueller in that game.”
Panik didn’t have much time before he had to be on the field for Game 5, so he pulled up the video of Mueller’s home run on YouTube – on his phone.
“Just kind of visual memory, telling my brain what to do and how to do it,” Panik said. “Just how (Mueller) kind of cleared his hips to let his hands through. It kind of brought me back to what my St. John’s (University) hitting coach always said – keep your hands tight to the body. Watching that, everything kind of clicked.”
Many of Rivera’s broken-bat victims were left-handed hitters who thought they were barreling up on the closer’s signature pitch, only to have it dart inward at the last second and meet the bat inches above their hands. But in the video, Mueller pulls his hands close to his chest on his swing, and the result is a drive that clears the right-center field wall.
When looking at Mueller’s and Panik’s home runs side by side, when the pitch is released, their set-ups are nearly identical. Mueller’s hips open perhaps a little quicker. Wainwright’s cutter comes in a little lower, and Panik meets it a little more out in front, hooking it high down the right-field line.
“To be honest with you, in most parks it probably would’ve hooked foul,” Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said. “But here, it stayed fair somehow.”
Meulens said Giants coaches show hitters video of others players having success against certain pitchers or pitch types.
“But that’s instinctively from him, in the playoffs,” Meulens said. “You think about something like that, you’ve got to give him all the credit. Even if we say it all the time, ‘Do this, do that,’ they’ve still got to do it.”
Asked if it’s surprising to see that from a 23-year-old in his first big-league season, Meulens shook his head.
“No,” Meulens said. “I mean, he’s beyond his age. Nothing that he does surprises me.
“His overall demeanor and the way he plays the game – he’s calm, cool and collected. Nothing ever seems to rush him at all, at any point during the game. Maybe it does, but he never shows it.”
The Giants thought enough of Panik to make him their first-round draft pick out of St. John’s in 2011. Still, general manager Brian Sabean said, Panik opened some eyes by holding his own that year in the Arizona Fall League – and with how he handled transitioning from shortstop, his college position, to second base.
“We always liked his approach at the plate,” Sabean said. “His abilities might not knock your eyes out. It’s just he’s so steady, he’s so prepared.
“The amazing thing is, even though he was going really well in Triple A (early this year), we had no idea that he’d come up this soon, let alone be able to play this well. It tells you how grounded he is, and how prepared he is.”
Panik had 15 hits in his first 71 at-bats in the majors, a .211 average. Then he hit .338 the rest of the regular season. In 10 postseason games, Panik has 48 plate appearances with 11 hits and one strikeout.
The player he replaced as the Giants’ everyday second baseman, Marco Scutaro, also was notably tough to strike out, and manager Bruce Bochy has cited similarities between their playing styles. Meulens was asked if Panik reminds him of anyone as a hitter.
“Sure, there’s some,” Meulens said, “but right now – I don’t know, he’s as solid as they come, man.
“Somebody compared him to Wade Boggs. I played with Wade Boggs in New York. They refuse to hit the ball in the air, they refuse to strike out. They don’t try to do too much, at any point. So that’s great company right there.”
When Panik came up against Wainwright in the third inning of Game 5, the Giants had not hit a home run in their last 242 plate appearances. With a swing, Panik matched the number of homers he’d hit in 269 regular-season at-bats with the Giants.
Afterward, as the Giants celebrated in their clubhouse, Panik for a rare moment sounded somewhat like a rookie caught up in the moment of his first playoffs.
“I mean growing up and watching postseason baseball, seeing guys come up with big hits in the NLCS, World Series, you think, ‘That could be me one day, just keep working hard,’” Panik said. “You always dream about it. But to be able to do it is totally different.”
In the Mueller video, the direction of his blast is such that as long as it clears the fence, it’s a home run. Mueller circles the bases with his head down, betraying little emotion until he rounds third base and pumps his fist twice before disappearing into a circle of teammates at the plate.
With Panik, there’s a question of whether the ball will stay fair. As he leaves the batter’s box he watches its flight, mouth slightly open, leaning left as if willing the ball to stay inside the foul pole. It does, of course, and as Panik returns to the Giants dugout and a sea of high-fives, the video, while not totally clear, appears to show the hint of a smile.