SAN FRANCISCO – Two outs, bottom of the fourth. Brandon Belt at the plate, the Giants trail by four. There’s nobody on when Padres starting pitcher Ian Kennedy goes into his windup and delivers. Belt swings, and his foul ball barely clears the backstop, angled a bit toward third. It’s a screamer, and smart guys in Section 118 duck for cover.
But not Judge Dave De Alba. Coming off the Sacramento Superior Court bench, De Alba skied a good two inches off the ground for the rocket off Belt’s bat. When he came down, the judge looked into the webbing of his Wilson A2500 to discover a baseball signed by Commissioner Rob Manfred.
“I was in the zone,” De Alba said.
On a breezy and sunny spring day, the catch stood out as a highlight. The Giants came into Wednesday’s game against San Diego having won five in a row. Their pitchers had thrown three consecutive shutouts. Shortstop Brandon Crawford had gone 6 for 15 in his previous four games, with a homer, two doubles and four RBIs. Center fielder Angel Pagan had accumulated the seventh most hits in the league.
Even more important was the number in the Giants’ win column. For the first time in a month, it exceeded the one demarcating losses. The .500 mark in baseball represents a threshold in the mindset of fans. You must cross it before you can think about challenging anybody else. At 14-13 Wednesday morning, the Giants could finally assess themselves in the context of the rest of the division.
Before Wednesday afternoon’s game, manager Bruce Bochy downplayed the achievement, but acknowledged his club was beginning to get well after having lost eight in a row and nine of 10 in an ugly April slide.
“It’s good to be playing better baseball,” he told reporters. “We’re not here to play .500 or just get over .500, but the fact that we’re doing some little things better – the pitching’s been real good this homestand – it’s nice to be on a roll like this. But we’ve got a lot of work to do. There’s so much baseball left. You celebrate the wins, but you’ve got to put those aside, too.”
Bochy’s equanimity proved to be a wise outlook. About two hours later, his pitching staff’s scoreless inning streak of 29 innings went pfffft. Against rookie pitcher Chris Heston, six consecutive Padres poked and pounded the ball past diving infielders and scrambling outfielders. In a 9-1 win, the Padres turned AT&T Park into a pinball machine the way they pinged balls all over the field.
Things didn’t improve Thursday night against the Marlins, who beat the Giants 7-2.
Despite the losses plunging the Giants below .500 again, it could not erase Judge De Alba’s midweek play of the day.
“I was looking at this thing like anybody else, and this thing is coming and it’s coming fast,” De Alba said. “I just kind of jumped up a little bit and caught it. I don’t know if it was an inch or two inches or what, but I snatched it.”
A hundred fans seated around De Alba reacted as if they’d won the Super Bowl. The judge held the ball high and soaked in the adulation. He didn’t act as if he’d been there before – because he hadn’t. In a lifetime of attending Giants games, it was the 61-year-old De Alba’s first-ever catch of a foul ball.
The glove helped.
“First time I brought one to the park in 25 years, at least,” De Alba confessed.
De Alba has sent many a man to prison, including some murderers for the rest of their lives. Now he stands accused and convicted of leaving the Wednesday rout early, an infraction usually associated with Dodgers fans. De Alba offered an explanation: He had to get home to Sacramento and work his sources to see if anybody taped the game.
Judge Ben Davidian told De Alba he recorded the game, but the bad news was that Kruk and Kuip – Giants TV announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, who usually are all over fan catches – missed Dave’s gem. They were deep into a discussion of Angel Pagan’s bad finger when the judge rose from the bench.
“He said you could hear the roar of the crowd,” the disconsolate De Alba said.
As a kid, De Alba used to walk to Candlestick in the years of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda. His father, now 90, worked as a Giants’ ticket taker for 44 years, until this season, when he moved into an elevator operator’s chair at AT&T Park. De Alba’s brother is a retired firefighter who now works on the grounds crew. One of his younger sisters went to high school with the team’s president and CEO, Larry Baer.
The De Albas live, work and play in orange and black. They waited a long time for their three World Series championships and even longer for their first foul ball.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.