SAN FRANCISCO -- With a runner on first, no outs, and the Giants trailing the Braves 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh last Tuesday, manager Bruce Bochy sent Pablo Sandoval to the on-deck circle. The fans behind the plate started to cheer the second they saw Sandoval emerge, but after just a couple of warm-up hacks, he was summoned back to the dugout. A double-play meant Sandoval no longer represented the tying run, and Tyler Austin was sent up to pinch-hit instead.
Two innings later, Bochy would actually pull the trigger. The Giants had cut the deficit to one, the tying run was on first, and Sandoval strolled to the plate with two outs. His infield single kept the rally going and helped the Giants to a thrilling comeback that is their only win of the last eight games.
Not a whole lot has gone right this season, but Sandoval's resurgence has given Bochy at least one scenario where he feels he has the edge over opposing managers. The Giants have the best pinch-hitter in the league right now, and in a season where most moves have backfired, Sandoval has validated more of Bochy's decisions than anyone else.
"I try to find the best spot to use him," Bochy said. "It can be early, with a couple of guys on base. I want my best guy who I think can break the game open or give us a big hit."
For two months that has been Sandoval, and if he keeps this up, he could break a franchise record. With 10 hits in 28 pinch-hit at-bats, Sandoval is the MLB-leader by three over the Braves' Charlie Culberson and Mets' Dominic Smith. That puts him on pace to break the franchise record of 19 pinch-hits by Sam Leslie in 1932, and the San Francisco Giants record of 18 by Ken Oberkfell in 1989.
Before Oberkfell, the SF-era record was 17, by Candy Maldonado in 1986. He broke Duane Kuiper's mark of 14 in 1982. Some of Kuiper's best calls this season have resulted from Sandoval's late-game heroics, and as he watches from the booth, he sees a simple reason why Sandoval has been so good in the role.
"He's got the ability to hit, whether he's in pajamas, whether it's January and he's at a Super Bowl party, whether he's at the bar -- wherever he is, he has the ability to hit," Kuiper said. "He has the mentality that he's going to swing and then he has the ability to hit any pitch, and with almost any pitch, he's going to at least put it in play."
For Bochy, that last part is key. He's putting Sandoval in spots where he can alter the outcome of a game with a base hit, and Sandoval has been aggressive. His pinch-hit walk Tuesday in Miami was his first of the season. In those 28 pinch-hit at-bats, Sandoval has two homers and five doubles. In that respect, Bochy compared him to Hunter Pence, who also went up as a pinch-hitter looking to be aggressive and do damage.
"Your good (pinch-hitters) have a calmness about them, they have a great way of keeping those nerves, keeping those butterflies under control," Bochy said. "But Pablo is different. Pablo is always amped up, and what he has in those situations is the ability to expand the zone. There's no one scouting report that can get these guys."
Sandoval has been so good as a pinch-hitter, posting a 1.129 OPS, that he has earned more starting time. That's one of two twists that could keep him from going after the franchise pinch-hit mark. The other? A contender could scoop him up before the deadline as a bench bat for the postseason.
For now, though, Sandoval largely remains in his reserve role. Bochy will keep looking for the right spot, hoping to alter games with a player who has displayed an elite skill in a season where that's been almost entirely lacking on all fronts for the Giants.