Giants second baseman Joe Panik went nearly five weeks without playing in a baseball game while waiting for the inflammation in his lower back to subside. No sooner had he returned to the field on Thursday night with the Triple-A River Cats than his back was put to a significant test.
In the third inning, Panik broke to his left for a ground ball, only to see it deflect off diving first baseman Kevin Frandsen. Panik went into a slide, reached back with his bare hand, seized the ball and threw from his knee to pitcher Ty Blach covering first base for the out.
So much for easing back into game action.
"Yeah, that was an interesting one," Panik said, grinning. "Something like that happens, you kinda get up and you’re like, ‘I came out of it OK. I’m not still lying on the ground.’"
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Panik said it was probably one of the best defensive plays he has ever made. The Giants, meanwhile, might have preferred it if Panik hadn’t needed to contort his body in such a way while playing in his first game since Aug. 1. But Panik said the play was all instinct -- and when he did stand up and take inventory, his back felt OK.
"All the (practice) ground balls, all the core work, everything you prepare for, you can’t simulate game situations like that where a ball deflects and you have to change all your momentum going one way and stop," Panik said. "So it was definitely a good test, and everything kind of held up."
The play was certainly the highlight of Panik’s first rehab appearance as he works toward rejoining the Giants next week in Arizona. Panik played three innings and got two at-bats Thursday, grounding into a double play in the first inning and grounding out to shortstop in the third. They were his first at-bats against live pitching since Aug. 1, just before the Giants put him on the disabled list with back inflammation.
"It felt fine," Panik said of his back. "I’m happy with the way the couple of at-bats went. Even though obviously you want to get a hit every time, I was able to get down the line fine and everything was good. So definitely happy with it. Now we’ll see how it responds tomorrow and kind of take it from there."
Panik is now scheduled to play six innings Friday night and nine on Saturday for the River Cats, rest Sunday and then join the Giants to potentially be activated Monday. He said the main focus is regaining his hitting timing after not seeing live pitching for a month, but that he was pleasantly surprised by how he saw the ball Thursday night.
"It’s better than I thought it was going to be," Panik said. "Results weren’t there … But it’s there. Legs felt fine in the swing. Couple more at-bats and I’ll be that much better and ready to go."
The Giants could certainly use a healthy Panik as they cling to hopes of making a playoff run this month. They were blown out Thursday in Colorado, a night after being swept by the Dodgers in Los Angeles to fall 6 ½ games back in the N.L. West. Panik said watching the Dodgers series unfold was "definitely tough."
"You want to be out there because you know you can help out, contribute," Panik said. "But when you can’t do that, there’s nothing you can do."
Panik’s presence has been missed both in the field and in the lineup. Prior to going on the DL the first-time All-Star was batting .309 and ranked among the N.L. leaders in hits and on-base percentage. The Giants have struggled to fill their No. 2 lineup spot in his stead. Entering Thursday, their No. 2 hitters besides Panik were batting just .207 on the season with 22 runs scored in 43 games.
As his highlight-reel play Thursday night showed, Panik also brings a valuable defensive element to a Giants infield that has been without shortstop Brandon Crawford lately as well. Fortunately for the Giants, the play -- and how Panik felt after -- also seemed to illustrate that he’s on track to return soon.
"This injury, it definitely tests you mentally," Panik said. "But I’m really excited to kinda just get back and be with the guys, and compete with them."