SAN FRANCISCO -- Gregor Blanco has admitted in the past that being pressed into an everyday role for the Giants has challenged him. He has carried the burden of replacing regular outfielders, particularly offensively, and has put pressure on himself to succeed, with his performance sometimes suffering as a result.
Blanco said he still feels that pressure at times -- but by now it seems he has encountered this situation so often that he may be getting used to it. Currently, the Giants are without both Nori Aoki and Angel Pagan, who have combined to start 99 of their 115 games out of the leadoff spot this season. Yet in their absences, Blanco has stepped into that leadoff spot and thrived.
The Giants’ 8-5 win over the Washington Nationals on Friday night encapsulated the way Blanco, when he’s playing well, can impact a game. Blanco had three hits, including two doubles, scored twice, drove in two runs and stole a base. He also made a diving catch in center field in the third inning. Each of his hits factored into a Giants scoring rally.
"He did it all tonight," manager Bruce Bochy said of Blanco. "He’s had a great year."
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Somewhat quietly, Blanco has raised his average to .294 and his on-base percentage to .372. His production out of the leadoff spot has been even better: In 16 games, he has hit .381 with a .458 on-base percentage and scored 15 runs. Already in the first two games of this series against the Nationals, he has been on base five times and scored four runs.
"Tonight he put on a clinic," said third baseman Matt Duffy. "He had a couple doubles, got a bunt down that was really nice, stole a base. That’s exactly what you want out of a leadoff hitter. I don’t like to use the word perfect -- but I’d say he was pretty close to perfect tonight out of the leadoff spot."
Duffy had a pretty good night himself, finishing a triple short of the cycle and driving in three runs while batting behind Blanco in his latest role as the Giants’ No. 2 hitter. Duffy got the Giants on the board in the first inning when he turned on a 95 mph fastball inside from Max Scherzer for his 10th home run of the season. In the second, he and Blanco both accounted for one of the Giants’ four doubles off Scherzer, who eventually left the game after the third, having allowed six runs.
While Blanco hit his double on a first-pitch changeup from Scherzer, Duffy and Justin Maxwell both had RBI doubles in the second on mid-90s fastballs, and Hunter Pence pounced on a first-pitch fastball for a home run leading off the third inning.
"We like the challenge, we like the velocity," Blanco said of the Giants’ approach to Scherzer. "We work on it every day, and whenever we see guys like that, we always try to go for the fastball. That’s usually going to be their best pitch. We just try to get ahead on the fastball, and it seemed that it worked today."
Blanco said "it’s been fun" contributing out of the leadoff spot lately, and that his current rate of production is something he feels capable of sustaining.
"I always knew I had that," Blanco said. "I played at that level before, not here, but back in my country (Venezuela) in winter ball and I was just waiting for the moment when that was going to come."
His timing has been uncanny for the Giants, who are missing not only Aoki and Pagan, but regular No. 2 hitter Joe Panik. For much of the season, Aoki and Panik have formed one of the more productive 1-2 tandems in the league (Panik ranks eighth in the N.L. in on-base percentage and Aoki 11th). And Blanco said he has benefited from watching both hitters’ approaches.
"Their approach at the plate, how consistent they can be, just kind of using their hands and not trying to do too much -- that helped me realize I don’t need to do (too much) either," Blanco said. "Just be myself and get on base, and let the other guys drive me in."
It was enough Friday night, as Blanco made his presence felt in a handful of ways. After his double in the sixth inning, he stole third, then scored on Brandon Belt’s groundout by executing a nifty slide around the tag of Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton. In the eighth, he beat out a bunt single that moved Juan Perez to third base, where Perez scored from on a Duffy sacrifice fly.
"Top of the order, the catalysts, they did a great job," Bochy said. "That’s how you put the big numbers up there, those guys doing their thing."