Tagged: San Francisco Giants

Prospect Watch: Gary Brown

By: Noah Frank

Oh, the offseason. The lack of daily baseball at Chukchansi Park leaves those of us who work here itching to get a jump on next year. And so, as we did last offseason, we will begin looking at the players making their way through the farm system who seem likely to spend at least part of the 2012 season here in the Central Valley. There will be names you most likely recognize, as well as those you probably do not. We’ll start this year’s crop with one that most Grizzlies and Giants fans know by now: Gary Brown.

Even if he begins the season at Double-A Richmond, which seems likely, given the logjam in center field created by the likes of Justin Christian, Darren Ford, Tyler Graham, the newly-signed Gregor Blanco and possibly Andres Torres, Brown will be a name often on the tips of Grizzlies fans’ tongues next season. That expectation simply comes with the territory when you are a first-round draft pick, as Brown was in 2010. Just ask Madison Bumgarner (’07) and Buster Posey (’08), or the recently departed Zach Wheeler (’09), who now faces the additional pressure with the Mets of being the top prospect traded for a star in Carlos Beltran.

Brown's season continued with the Scottsdale Scorpions this fall. (Chris Lockard/Scout.com)

With Beltran himself quite possibly heading elsewhere this offseason, that will put pressure on Brown to live up to large expectations, and will no doubt lead to fans calling for his promotion to the Majors sooner rather than later.

Brown has certainly done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding him, but the Giants were careful with the Cal State Fullerton product in his first season. After assigning him straight to High-A San Jose in 2011, Brown was given the entire season to prove what he could accomplish in the California League. All he did was post a line of .336/.407/.519, rapping out 61 extra-base hits, stealing 53 bases, and scoring a mind-numbing 115 runs in just 131 games for the minor Giants.

As we always do at Yard Work, we sought out the expertise of someone who has seen what Brown can do close-up. We spoke briefly about Brown a couple weeks prior with former Grizzlies hitting coach Ken Joyce, who served in the same role for Brown’s Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League, whose regular season ends today. But we went into greater depth with Joe Ritzo, the radio voice of the San Jose Giants, to learn more about what to expect out of the young centerfielder as he moves through the system. Ritzo pulls no punches when describing the role Brown played for San Jose, picked as the High-A Team of the Year, last season.

“He was our MVP,” says Ritzo, and it’s easy to see why. “Everyone knows about his speed and his defensive abilities, which were evident on a daily basis, but he had power too.”

Indeed, Brown swatted 14 home runs on the season. He also absolutely wore out left-handed pitching, batting .459 with a .685 slugging percentage (!) against southpaws last year. Not bad for a leadoff hitter.

Ritzo also compares Brown’s speed to the likes of Grizzlies single-season and franchise stolen base leader Graham, as well as Ford. Those two have been considered the fastest prospects in the system over the last few seasons, so the bar has been set high in the speed department before Brown ever sets his fleet feet in Fresno. But how does he compare to recent top draft picks at other positions?

Brown, like Brett Pill, is a Cal State Fullerton product. (mattbrownphoto.com)

“I’ve been here five or six years and there’s nobody quite like him and how he plays the game,” says Ritzo, which is high praise considering the top prospects that have roamed the diamond at Municipal Stadium the last few years. When I ask Ritzo to compare Brown to the likes of Posey and Bumgarner, he provides some interesting perspective.

“I don’t think his personality was really like any of those players,” he posits. “But what you see is that desire, working so hard before games, the competitive edge that you might see in Buster and Madison that separates them from others. The mental ability that those guys had, Gary has it as well.”

Brown, as mentioned earlier, had the advantage of coming through a high-caliber college baseball program at Cal State Fullerton, the same school that produced Brett Pill. Fresno fans have seen that the experience and maturity gained from those years has paid dividends for Pill, and they seem to be doing the same for Brown, according to Ritzo.

“There’s something extra when you watch him play that you just feel confident that he’s going to have a long and successful Major League career,” says Ritzo. “You can’t predict that kind of Major League success with much certainty very often with guys at the Single-A level.”

The only tick on Brown’s stellar 2011 performance can be seen with a deeper look into his month-by-month numbers. He batted .333 (including a .385 mark in August and a .397 clip in May) or better in every month of the season except one— a glaring .202 performance in June. In cases like these, it’s important to look for answers beyond the box scores, which is where someone like Ritzo comes in handy to provide context for such a slump.

Brown's speed in the outfield, and on the base paths, sets him apart. (Tony Medina)

“We made a lot of roster moves right about that time (early June), including sending Hector Sanchez to Fresno, and Gary was arguably playing better than any of those guys,” explains Ritzo. “He was maybe anticipating that call-up, and when he didn’t get the call it was a little disappointing, so he hit a bit of a lull. It was expressed to him that the organization wants him to stay in San Jose the whole year.”

While the San Francisco brass may have taken the conservative route with Brown in 2011, Ritzo does not expect them to necessarily continue to do moving forward.

“You get the sense that they won’t go that same route this year, especially if he’s starting the season in Richmond,” Ritzo says. “I would think if he starts hot would make it to Fresno before too long. If he has anything close to the kind of year that he had in San Jose, he’ll move quickly through the system.”

Here’s to hoping Fresno fans get a glimpse of what Brown can do sooner rather than later.

Too Good For Hollywood

By: Noah Frank

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” —Thomas Gray

Those familiar with the baseball classic Bull Durham may recognize the line above. It is the one used by Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, as Crash Davis sets the all-time minor league home run record in utter obscurity, only the two of them aware of what he has accomplished. It signifies that many victories in life go unseen, unheralded by the masses.

In that vein, most of the 12,161 fans that attended the August 27th contest between the Grizzlies and rival Sacramento were focused on the highly publicized story of the evening, that Billy Crystal was in the ballpark to film scenes for his upcoming motion picture. While the attention of the crowd was captured by the ballpark being transformed into a Hollywood set for the night, there was another script unfolding, one which even the most softhearted of tinsel-town producers would probably reject, considering it too preposterous to be believable.

While Billy Crystal was stealing the spotlight, Jason Stevenson was quietly going back to work. (Don Davis)

This is the story of Jason Stevenson. It is one that includes several acts, but which is perhaps just beginning to enter its most interesting phase, beginning with that night.

Act One of Stevenson’s baseball career seemed promising enough. The Redding, California native was selected out of Sacramento City College in the 12th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft by the Montreal Expos, advancing as high as Triple-A by 2004. But in 2005, when the floundering Expos were moved to their current home in our nation’s capitol, Stevenson went just 6-14— including a 1-9 mark with an ERA over 10.50 at Double-A— and decided to hang up his cleats.

From there, Stevenson’s life fell off track. He doesn’t like to talk about that period of his past; not in specifics, at least. He mentions in passing “the path I was on” or “troubled times”, referring occasionally to his time spent at “the bottom”.

“The first few years away I really just didn’t do much, I stayed away from the game,” he recalls as we chat after batting practice on August 25th in the home clubhouse, nestled under the right field concourse at Chukchansi Park. “It was a point in my life where I still wanted to stay in shape because the day that I gave baseball up I still had regrets.”

In spite of his lifestyle, though, somewhere in the back of his mind he knew the value of keeping his blessed left arm strong. He played a variety of sports— flag football, competitive softball— and kept himself active. Nevertheless, it took several years for his frustration and contrition to come to a head.

“I was really tired of the way I was living my life,” he admits. “I finally got to the point where I could trick my mind into thinking that I was better than what I was doing, what kind of person I was. Then I started seeing guys that I played with … just certain guys … I knew I had the same stuff as them, and my competitiveness started coming back to me.”

He tried out for the independent league Chico Outlaws in 2009, but did not receive an offer. He did so again in 2010, but again manager Mike Marshall was not willing to sign him until Stevenson fully committed to becoming a professional athlete again, in every aspect of his life.

“[This year] I decided I was going to make an effort, off the field completely and on the field completely,” Stevenson explains. “I just tried to pick up from where I left off in ’05.”

Maybe the difference was finally realizing that he was playing for more than himself.

Stevenson (center) fit in immediately in a clubhouse of veterans, like Marc Kroon (left). (Don Davis)

“My daughter is seven years old, and I haven’t had her in my life the past two or three years through off the field stuff,” Stevenson says, his voice becoming strained with emotion. “But I want my daughter to have a good life and I know that, for me playing baseball, if I can make it, I can make things a lot better for her. For my family, for myself and for everybody.”

He gained inspiration from the story of top prospect-turned-heroin addict-turned-MVP Josh Hamilton, whose story has risen to the national spotlight over the last couple of years. Stevenson took that story to heart, and felt he could provide the same inspiration to others through his own comeback.

“I wanted people who may have taken the path I took once I gave up baseball to see that there is hope,” Stevenson says.

As we speak, I notice that he doesn’t strike the eye as a natural athlete the way that someone like the 6’4”, 240 pound Hamilton does. Of course, the Rangers slugger was the first overall pick the year prior to Stevenson’s draft, going 344 spots above him. Stevenson’s blondish hair is buzzed close to the skin, the crown of a receding hairline creeping backwards around his scalp. Listed at 6’1”, 175, he is clearly in good shape but, having just celebrated his 30th birthday, is fighting the slow march of time in a room full of players mostly younger than him, and without a five-year career gap.

“Through the five years that I played Minor League Baseball I was a young guy, I was younger mentally than I was my age,” he explains. “I didn’t know how important the off the field stuff was— the working out, the going to sleep early, the focus that you have to have even off the field to be able to take it on the field.”

Stronger in mind and body, Stevenson finally earned a spot with Marshall’s Outlaws this spring. All he did from there was go an outlandish 8-0 in eight starts, also earning a three-inning save in his lone relief appearance. He logged an ERA of just 1.68, striking out 76 in 64.1 innings of work. That was enough for the San Francisco Giants, Stevenson’s hometown rooting interest as a Northern California kid, to take a flier on the southpaw. With a rotation depleted by injuries and promotion, the Grizzlies became Stevenson’s first professional destination, as he was penciled in for a spot start at Las Vegas on August 22nd. It was a far cry from Chico, and a much farther one from his life the past five years.

Stevenson delivers a pitch in his lone start at Chukchansi Park this season. (Don Davis)

“Obviously playing for the team I grew up cheering for, it was pretty overwhelming getting that call,” recalls Stevenson. “But I knew once I got that call that everything was meant to be and that there’s baseball left in my career.”

His comeback began inauspiciously. The first batter he faced, Darin Mastroianni, homered. Stevenson surrendered a second longball in his first inning of work, the Grizzlies trailing 4-0 after one frame. But he settled in to shut the 51s down from there as he pitched into the seventh inning, allowing just four more hits while striking out seven the rest of the way. The offense did its part in the meantime, providing six runs of support to stake Stevenson to his first professional win in six years.

That gave the southpaw another opportunity, as he made his first home start for the Grizzlies in front of a packed house in the penultimate home game of the season. Of course, most of the fans had no idea of his story, but that didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that he was finally back where he wanted to be, where he needed to be. With the cameras rolling on the action taking place around the ballpark, Stevenson quietly went back to work on the mound, home once again.

“I’m just so thankful to have a second chance,” he says. “Not a lot of people get a second chance in anything they do, so a chance to play baseball again? I’m just taking it all in at once and just trying to do what I can.”

This is a lesson he has learned and has paid dearly for. It is one he is reminded of every day, one that he will not need to learn again.

“Quitting in ’05 was the worst thing I ever did,” he declares, but then qualifies his statement with a perspective only gained through experience and maturity. “Then again, it could end up being the biggest thing I ever did. Now I’ve grown up. I now know how much this game means to me. Baseball is my greatest love, so I play this game as hard as I can. This time I’m not going to give it up until I can’t throw the ball anymore.”

If You’re Going To San Francisco

By: Noah Frank

When Justin Christian signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants last offseason, he didn’t expect an assignment back to the Double-A Eastern League, with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. That’s exactly where the 31-year-old found himself on Opening Day, though, surrounded by teammates and opponents in their mid-20s, a place he was in when he first came up through the New York Yankees farm system five years prior.

Christian was an up-and-coming 26-year-old when he opened the 2006 season on the roster of the Trenton Thunder, the Eastern League team affiliated with the Yankees. He made it to the majors in June of 2008, but lasted just 24 games before being sent back to Triple-A. The Yankees non-tendered him in 2009, and he spent a shortened season in the Orioles chain after recovering from shoulder surgery. He began 2010 in Indy ball before the Yankees signed him once again, but he was relegated to a season split between Double-A and Triple-A again. Needing a change of scenery, Christian signed as a free agent with the Giants, his hometown team that he grew up rooting for in San Mateo. And yet, here he was to begin 2011, back on the east coast, two big steps removed from getting back to the promised land.

“Having to start in Double-A was tough for me,” Christian admitted. “I looked it as an opportunity to help the young guys over there and to get at-bats in and to perform and be ready to be up here.”

Christian kept his head down and his numbers up in Fresno. (Don Davis)

To keep himself focused, Christian decided on a walk-up song that would remind him of his ultimate goal, a return to the Major Leagues. That song was the “San Francisco Anthem” by San Quinn, a hip-hop track that samples Scott McKenzie’s seminal ‘60s hit “San Francisco”. Those at the Diamond in Richmond, as well as those who attended a game at Chukchansi Park following Christian’s promotion Fresno, may well remember it echoing from the sound system as he stepped to the plate.

“You always want to have those constant, daily reminders of where you want to be,” he explained. “I think if you see it every day, you hear it everyday and you believe it, that you will get there.”

Nevertheless, the dream still seemed distant, even after the move to Triple-A. Christian had hit a modest .256/.328/.359 with four home runs, 18 stolen bases and 46 runs scored in 73 games for the Flying Squirrels, and had only really gotten the opportunity to play in Fresno after Darren Ford and Tyler Graham collided going after a ball in right-center field at Kino Stadium in Tucson. The former had tweaked his wrist on the play, leading to the decision to move Christian up.

So much of baseball, though, as players and longtime fans of the game will tell you, is what you do when opportunity comes your way. Christian took full advantage of his opportunity, homering twice and swiping five steals through his first four games as a Grizzly. He would go on to finish his 64-game Triple-A stint at .338/.428/.574 with 10 homers and 36 steals in just 39 attempts. When the Giants decided to part ways with Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, summoning Brett Pill from Fresno, there was one more spot open on the 40-man roster. As much as a player can’t let himself be concerned with such administrative details as he goes about trying to succeed on the field each day, there is no avoiding it.

“Personally, I’m never too much aware of that part of the game because I’m too focused on playing well every single day,” said Christian. “But, you know, I have an agent, and a girlfriend that knows more about that kind of stuff than I do.”

Moments before one of Christian's spectacular catches this season. (AP)

As it turned out, Christian did not need to avoid the chatter from either agent or girlfriend. He would end up filling that final 40-man spot on September 6th, seven months to the day after signing with San Francisco.

“There were a couple of other guys who were deserving as well and they chose me,” he said in an early September interview in the home clubhouse at AT&T Park. “That means a lot to me. I always believed, deep down, that I could get back here.”

Not only did Christian get the call-up he has been waiting for, ever since recovering from that shoulder surgery, he found himself consistently in the starting lineup, batting leadoff. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve always expected to play, that’s just my mindset,” he said. “When the Yankees called me up back in June of ’08, even though I flew all day that day, I expected to play, and sure enough I was in the lineup. I always to expect to play, so that I’m not surprised. It’s too hard to do it the other way.”

With his speed and decent pop in his bat, as well as a propensity for highlight-reel catches like this, and this, Christian will be an intriguing piece of the puzzle as the Giants decide the future of their outfield.

On the Brink

By: Josh Jackson

There are many young kids in this country and other parts of the world who aspire to play professional baseball when they grow older. Unfortunately, for most of us, this fantasy is eventually smothered by the harsh realities that come with the different seasons of life. We realize that the road to becoming a professional athlete is too narrow for all dreamers to travel on. On the other hand, there are some kids who are just gifted, lucky, and put in a lot of time and hard work.  These kids eventually do get to play baseball professionally. We see them every summer at venues like Chukchansi Park in Downtown Fresno.

But the ultimate goal of every player performing in affiliated ball is to make it to The Show. Even out of all the players that are fortunate enough to have made it to a professional baseball team, a very minute portion will ever make it to the big leagues. So when 2011 Grizzlies Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchezmade their Major League debuts this season at such a young age, it was hard not to appreciate the rarity of the situation.

Hector Sanchez facing Sacramento on July 4 in Fresno

As most Grizzlies and Giants fans may know, Belt made his Major League debut on Opening Day this season. He struggled at the plate to start the year, which is very common for young hitters, and was optioned to Fresno on his 23rd birthday. Injuries to the Giants gave Sanchez his first opportunity to play in the Majors back on July 15th at the young age of 21. Most people don’t even dream of starting a career at that age and this young man started behind the plate for the defending World Series Champions. This year also marks Sanchez’ fifth year as a professional. Some simple math reveals that he was only 16 when he played his first professional baseball game.

Three-time All-star and Gold Glover Vernon Wells would know something about being on the brink of being a big time ball player at such a young age. Wells was a first-round selection by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997 when he was just 18 years old. At the age of 21, he went from playing Single-A ball to playing in the Majors in the span of one season, just like Sanchez. Wells described what it was like to be a teenager in the minor leagues.

“It was a great experience being around the older guys and guys that have played in the big leagues,” he explained. “You play around big league ballplayers everyday and it is hard to not focus on that.”

When asked what advice he would give to Hector Sanchez on the day of his Major League debut, Wells responded, “Just relax. Just stay confident. That’s the hardest part. It’s actually much easier to hit, you can see the ball easier in these (Major League) parks. Sometimes I would go rehab at these minor league stadiums and it was so difficult to see the ball.”

Brandon Belt facing the Tucson Padres on May 6 at Chukchansi Park

Perhaps confidence and the ability to relax at the plate was something Giants top prospect Brandon Belt lacked at the beginning of the season. Being sent back-and-forth between Fresno and San Francisco did not discourage Belt, as he kept a positive attitude and a healthy work ethic that was visibly apparent to even the casual observer. His focus paid off on July 19th, when he was recalled by San Francisco to face the rival Dodgers at home. Belt had no problem seeing the ball on this night, as he turned in a 2-for-4, 3 RBI performance, which included a solo shot to right field in the second inning, his first home run at AT&T Park. His contributions lifted the Giants to a much needed, 5-3 victory. Speaking with Belt after the game, you could see it felt good for him to get passed some of his early season struggles.

“The first time I was up (with the Giants) at the beginning of the year, confidence was definitely something I lacked,” Belt explained. “I put a lot of stress and pressure on myself and it definitely showed in my play. That’s one of the main things I wanted to work on when I was in Fresno. I was able to relax and find a place where I was comfortable physically and mentally and fortunately I was able to bring it back up here.”

Belt will likely finish the season with the San Francisco Giants, and it does not appear that he will be coming back our way to Fresno anytime soon. Sanchez is currently with San Jose until rosters expand in September. After talking with him in San Francisco, Sanchez expressed his excitement on finishing the year strong and getting more opportunities down the road.

“It is amazing being where I am and having a chance to play for a big league team,” Sanchez explained. “I am excited for the future and being able to play with those guys”.

Belt and Sanchez are already breathing rare air by making it to the Major League level at such a young age. Now the focus turns to doing what Vernon Wells has done, competing at the highest level for an extended period of time. The hard work and dedication to their craft will have to be pushed to the next level if they wish to have that kind of success down the road. Having witnessed their meteoric rise through the minor league system, it is hard to put a damper on their potential.

Photo Credit: Don Davis

Catching Up On Hector Sanchez

By: Ellen Ward

Ever since Buster Posey’s season ending injury, the San Francisco Giants have had a tough time fully replacing their every day catcher. A couple weeks after Posey went down, catcher Hector Sanchez was promoted from High-A San Jose all the way to Triple-A Fresno. This sudden promotion sparked many questions and speculation about whether or not the Giants were grooming this young catcher to perform on a bigger stage.

With a pitching rotation that the World Champion lean on, it is only fitting that a top-notch catcher should be calling the pitches and blocking the plate. Posey was the Giants top prospect in 2010, and he found his way to San Francisco on May 28th of that year and became the compliment to the pitching staff. Posey spent the first few weeks at first base while the Giants evaluated their options. In the end they traded veteran catcher, Bengie Molina to the Texas Rangers and Posey became the Giants starting catcher and prized possession.

Buster Posey catching for the Fresno Grizzlies in April of 2010

A year ago, the Giants fan base wouldn’t dare think that a number of players would be doomed to the disabled list, but that is exactly where half of the World Series roster ended up by mid-May. The most devastating injury by far was Buster Posey’s shoulder-to-shoulder collision. He suffered season-ending injuries after Florida Marlins’ outfielder, Scott Cousins barreled into home plate in an extra innings game on May 25th at AT&T Park.

The Giants took action quickly, calling up Chris Stewart from Fresno, and moving backup catcher Eli Whiteside into the starting role. Both catchers are familiar with the pitching staff, but neither has come close to filling the vacant role Posey has left. It is rumored that the Giants are looking for other options to fill the position, and the recent promotion of Hector Sanchez from High-A San Jose to Fresno has provoked quite a buzz.

 This is a huge step for him,” manager Steve Decker comments on the arrival of Sanchez. “We need to make this kid a complete guy.”

There is a whirlwind of speculation about this young catcher but no one seems to know much about him. Sanchez is a 21 year-old from Maracay, Venezuela. He signed with the Giants at the green age of 16 in 2007, and played in the Dominican Summer League for two years.

In his second year of professional baseball, he hit .348, with 63 RBI and went 72-for-207. The next year, Sanchez began playing in the Arizona Rookie League, still catching and still producing runs. He hit a solid .299, and hit safely 35 times in 33 games. In 2010, he played at Low-A Augusta, where he batted .274, went yard five times, and had 31 RBI.

The Giants obviously saw potentional in Sanchez because he was a non-roster invitee for Spring Training in 2011. He spent a majority of camp with the defending World Champions, before being assigned to High-A San Jose.

“He got a lot of playing time because Whiteside got hurt in Spring Training”, points out Decker when asked how familiar Sanchez is with catching the Giants starting rotation.

Sanchez playing for the San Jose Giants. (Tony Medina)

In the Cal League, Sanchez tore it up in his first 43 games, batting .301, notching 19 multi-hit games, and hitting eight homers. Even more impressive is that he continued to be a RBI machine, notching 46 RBI in just 43 games. All of this work at the plate was done at the same time he was behind the plate guiding the Giants’ young arms, including top prospect Zach Wheeler. When Sanchez batted clean up for San Jose, he hit .319, and hit six of his eight home runs in the four slot. Sound familiar? Posey was the Giants permanent clean up hitter, and rotating players since his injury have filled that slot.

Sanchez was promoted from San Jose on June 9th, and played in his first Triple-A game on June 10th. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, and a RBI in his first game. He caught for veteran Shane Loux who gave up one earned run and fanned three batters in six innings of work. Sanchez’ has reached base safely in seven of his first nine games. He notched his first multi-hit game just six days into his Triple-A career, going 2-for-4, with a double and single, while plating two runs. He accomplished this at the same time as he was behind the plate calling a game for Cy-Young Award winner, Barry Zito in his third rehab start. Sanchez was the starting catcher in every single rehab start that Zito has pitched in, both games with San Jose and two more in Fresno.

“Sanchez called a great game and made it easy for me”, expressed starting pitcher, Andrew Kown after he threw six innings of no-hit ball to beat the Sacramento River Cats on June 19th.

On the surface Sanchez is a RBI machine based off his offensive numbers alone, and he has the advantage of being a switch hitter at the plate. The real question is, can he catch a starting rotation that carried the Giants to the World Series?

“He is in a position to be called up,” says Decker when asked if he sees Sanchez making his major league debut this season. “They always say you’re one foul tip away from the big leagues.”

Decker, a former catcher who spent most of his career with Giants organization, coached Posey at the Triple-A level, and will continue to shape Sanchez until San Francisco calls upon him.

The Giants put trust in Posey at a young age, but it remains to be seen if they will do the same with the 21-year-old Sanchez. It might be too early to tell, but according to Bay Area reporters he is on the right track. If he keeps producing at and behind the plate, he may find himself in the Bay Area sooner than later.

Panda Sighting in Fresno

By: Ellen Ward

Despite a good overall record, the defending World Champions have had a rough start to the 2011 season. They have lost key players to injuries, several of which have come through Fresno on rehab stints before returning to the Majors. After losing 30 pounds and finding his swing again in the off-season, the last place Pablo Sandoval thought he would end up would be on the disabled list. Just a month into the season, Sandoval fractured his right hand sliding into second base in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and later received surgery to repair the broken bone. Sandoval used his recovery time wisely; working out constantly, and even took ground balls with his left hand.

Signing with the Giants in 2003, Sandoval quickly rose through the various levels within the organization. The Giants promoted him straight to the Majors from Double-A Connecticut, bypassing Triple-A Fresno completely. The infielder made his Major League debut with the Giants in 2008 after splitting time between High-A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut. Sandoval became an instant fan favorite, batting .345 in 2008 and quickly emerged as a key hitter in the lineup. He received his quirky nickname, Kung Fu Panda, from pitcher Barry Zito, on September 19th, 2008, when he jumped over a tag from catcher Danny Ardoin, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Sandoval continued to dominate in 2009, batting .330 with 25 home runs, but fell off to just .268 with 13 home runs in 2010. In order to return to his earlier form, Sandoval took advantage of the 2010 off-season, losing 30 pounds over a three-month span. Before breaking his hand, Sandoval was batting .313, and led the team with five home runs in 24 games.

Now, Sandoval is finding his way back to San Francisco after being gone for five weeks. He is scheduled to start his rehab with San Jose before heading to Fresno for the first time in his major league career sometime this weekend. According to various Bay Area reporters the Giants would like him to play in at least five games before returning to San Francisco.

With this being Sandoval’s first time in Fresno, the community is already buzzing about the famous Kung Fu Panda’s debut at Chukchansi Park. To catch a glimpse of the Panda in action, be sure to get your tickets before they’re all gone. And don’t forget to pick up a fuzzy panda hat— you wouldn’t want to miss out on all the fun!

(Photo Credit: top: Lenny Ignelzi/AP; bottom: Associated Press)

Grizzlies Alumni Report: Ryan Vogelsong

By: Josh Jackson

The 2011 season for the Fresno Grizzlies started with a complete turnover in the starting rotation from the 2010 season. With departures from pitchers like World Series Game 4 winner Madison Bumgarner and Grizzlies’ wins leader Eric Hacker, fans were not sure what to expect from the starting rotation this season. It was eventually decided that the ace for the Grizzlies would be journeyman Ryan Vogelsong.

Vogelsong turned in an impressive start for the Grizzlies on Opening Day against the Las Vegas 51’s. The 12-year veteran tossed 5.2 innings of three hit ball, giving up only one earned run, striking out nine batters, earning the win in the process. His next start against the Tacoma Rainiers on April 12th was almost an identical performance. Once again, Vogelsong went 5.2 innings, gave up only one earned run, fanned eight batters, and earned his second consecutive win. It would be his last appearance in a Grizzlies uniform before being called up to the San Francisco Giants on April 17th.

The North Carolina native was originally drafted by the Giants in the fifth round of the 1998 Major League Baseball Draft. Vogelsong eventually made his Major League debut with San Francisco on September 2, 2000, where he pitched a 1-2-3 inning of relief against the Chicago Cubs. He was not able to earn a spot in the rotation though, and in 2001, was assigned to the minor leagues where he made his debut with the Fresno Grizzlies. His first start in Fresno was on Opening Day against the Iowa Cubs, where he pitched 6.0 innings of one hit ball in a no decision. Vogelsong was traded later that year to the Houston Astros organization, and traded once again to the Pittsburgh Pirates at season’s end.

Vogelsong put together his longest Major League stint with the Pirates from the middle of the 2003 season through the middle of the 2006 season. During that stretch, Vogelsong compiled a lackluster 10-17 record with a 5.87 ERA. He was sent back down to AAA Indianapolis in 2006 and was released from the Pirates at the end of the season.

His next three seasons would be spent in the Japanese League, pitching for the Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes. It was not until last season when he made his return to the states. He made 7 starts (25 appearances) with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (PHI), compiling a 2-5 record with a 4.91 ERA. Later in the season, Vogelsong would return to the PCL, pitching for the Salt Lake Bees (LAA), going 1-3 with a 4.66 ERA in 7 starts (8 appearances).

Considering the multitude of struggles and obstacles he has had to face throughout his career, Vogelsong is experiencing no such thing in 2011. During his time with the Giants this season, Vogelsong has been nothing short of dominant. One of his more notable starts was on April 14th at Chicago (NL), where he pitched six innings of shutout ball in what would turn out to be a complete game. The contest was called due to rain.

He also turned in a 6.1 inning, one hit performance against Colorado on May 8th in a winning effort. As of this article, the tall right-hander is 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA with the Giants. Vogelsong has also not given up an earned run in 18.1 innings as of this article. He is, at least from a statistical standpoint, the best pitcher for the Giants so far this season on a star-studded pitching staff.

Vogelsong will look to continue his remarkable start to the season on May 26th against the Florida Marlins at AT&T Park. Make sure to keep an eye on this veteran as the season progresses. Perhaps he is the next Grizzlies alumn to do big things at the Major League level.

Photo Credit: Don Davis Photography