Ailene Voisin

Can Giants keep the Panda next year?

Pablo Sandoval, a converted catcher, continues to shine defensively at third base for the Giants. “I always thought he was a good third baseman,” said Tim Hudson, “but he really surprised me with the plays he makes.”
Pablo Sandoval, a converted catcher, continues to shine defensively at third base for the Giants. “I always thought he was a good third baseman,” said Tim Hudson, “but he really surprised me with the plays he makes.” pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The Giants can’t possibly let the Panda loose now, can they? The chubby third baseman hears the diet jokes, knows his training habits keep his bosses in a tizzy, and realizes that early in this season, he was nobody’s $100 million man.

But. But. But. The hits keep coming, and Pablo Sandoval continues messing with conventional thought.

Win or lose this World Series – and Madison Bumgarner’s 5-0 gem Sunday brought the Giants within a game of their third trophy in four years – Sandoval this season and postseason has done two things: Guaranteed himself a hefty raise and a multiyear agreement somewhere, while ensuring that Larry Baer and Brian Sabean twist and turn into the offseason.

The Sandoval conundrum refuses to go away. The question soon becomes: Does he.

“I love being with the Giants,” he said with a slight smile, his alight. “I love being part of this team, especially the last five years. Three World Series in five years. I love wearing this uniform. I love the way the fans support us. I don’t have to talk about it, but I love being here.”

That makes sense. Given the good vibes and good times, Sandoval and his agent should think long and hard before scratching his seven-itch elsewhere. Sunday’s victory over the Kansas City Royals was emblematic of the season and his wildly successful career.

Bumgarner, who is all of 25, dominated the Royals with fastballs, curveballs and increasingly wicked breaking balls. Manager Bruce Bochy again manipulated the lineup effectively with his familiar combination of old-school stubbornness and new age smarts: He got two hits from occasional left fielder Travis Ishikawa before switching to Juan Perez, who stunned everyone in the ballpark with his two-RBI double off the center-field wall in the eighth. Light-hitting Brandon Crawford also surprised with a single and three RBIs, along with his usual nifty defense at shortstop.

But right there in the middle of the scrum was Sandoval, slapping two singles and scoring two runs, and making plays at third base that would seem to defy the laws of both physics and athleticism. No one his size, a listed 5-foot-11, 245 pounds, is supposed to be this nimble, this agile, this quick, this skilled. This is a converted catcher, for heaven’s sakes, and a mere seven seasons on the job.

“I always thought he was a good third baseman,” said Tim Hudson, “but he really surprised me with the plays he makes. I gained a real appreciation for him. He had himself a Gold Glove year.”

While Sandoval didn’t come up with any of his spectacular bare-handed grabs Sunday, he was his usual clever self. He adjusted quickly on a high-hop grounder that dipped sharply and threw out Salvador Perez, handled a tough one-bounce line drive and beat Omar Infante by a whisker, and on the last play of the game, took a few extra steps to his left while carefully fielding Eric Hosmer’s grounder and throwing just as cautiously to Brandon Belt at first.

Everything about Sandoval is unique, of course. And that’s part of the Giants’ upcoming dilemma. How much is he worth and for how many seasons?

The prevailing around MLB is that he might be best suited for the American League, where he can sign (Yankees, Red Sox?) for his long-term, hoped-for $100 million or so, and if his conditioning remains problematic, spend the last years of the deal as a designated hitter.

Accept that, and you get a great player.

And once he started hitting, Sandoval hasn’t stopped. His arc keeps tilting upward. During the regular season, he hit .279 with 26 doubles, 16 home runs and 73 RBI (.199 from the right side, .317 from his preferred left). It’s in the World Series where he simply thrives. In his 10 career Series games, the cleanup hitter is batting .390 and has hit safely in eight of his last nine Series appearances.

Slap hits, hard ground balls, line drives. He will swing at anything – the man is a master of reaching for balls out of the strike zone and somehow making contact.

“I just try not to get too excited,” Sandoval said later, with a huge grin on his face. But of course he gets too excited. That’s another thing about the Panda. He plays with joy, with abandon, and remains a fan favorite. It just feels like he belongs in this ballpark.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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