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Molina looking to lighten up

Molina looking to lighten up in second year

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As catchers practiced chasing popups during a drill Thursday, it wasn't enough for Bengie Molina to spring from his crouch, track the ball and snare it. During one of his turns, he reached down to scoop up a wayward ball and still proceeded to catch the one he was pursuing.

That's typical Molina, always doing something extra. This season, he might have to extend himself even more than usual.

Molina won't occupy any ordinary spot in the batting order. The Giants project him as their cleanup hitter, their best choice in a lineup bereft of power. Defensively, Molina must shepherd a mostly youthful group of pitchers who are expected to carry the Giants' hopes.

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One might expect that all this responsibility would tax Molina's psyche by the end of the season. Molina didn't just endure the Giants' 91 defeats last year. He mourned them. Often he'd sit hunched over in front of his locker, head buried in his hands, disconsolate even if he personally excelled. Molina's teammates appreciated how much he cared, before, during and after games.

"There's nothing better than seeing that intensity from someone," right-hander Matt Cain said. "We know that Bengie is always in the game, no matter what."

Comfortable in his second year with the Giants and aware of the challenges he faces, Molina said he'll try to be a little easier on himself this season -- though he'll probably continue to swallow each defeat as if it were a tennis ball.

"I'll be the same intense guy I was last year," Molina said before the Giants' initial workout for pitchers and catchers. Yet he also responded affirmatively when asked if he'd lighten his approach somewhat.

"It's not that I'm not relaxed out there," he said. "I don't take losing as easily as many guys. That's the only problem. I'm going to try this year [to relax]. Hopefully we won't lose as many games."

Pundits expect another rough season for the Giants, citing primarily their punchless offense. With Barry Bonds (28 home runs) not re-signed and Pedro Feliz (20 homers) gone to Philadelphia, Molina's the leading returning Giants slugger with 19 homers (Aaron Rowand hit 27 with the Phillies last year). Molina's hardly a prototypical No. 4 hitter. But he refuses to let the role affect him, as it does some hitters.

"I think they have the right guy in me because I don't think about it," Molina said. "I don't think about 'I'm the fourth guy' or 'I have to hit home runs' or anything like that. I'm straight-up going to be myself. If I get a pitch hanging and I have a chance to hit it out, if it goes out, it goes. But I'm not trying to hit home runs. I'm just trying to hit a hard line drive somewhere."

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In one sense, Molina's the ideal hitter for any spot in the order. He batted .338 with runners in scoring position and two outs a year ago, establishing himself as the Giants' top clutch performer.

Rebutting the skeptics, Molina recalled that the 2002 Angels with whom he won a World Series weren't known for slugging. They ranked 10th in the American League with 152 homers.

"We killed people by getting a lot of base hits and stealing bases with all those speed guys," he said, describing part of the strategy the Giants hope to employ.

Stingy pitching, another cornerstone of the Giants' plan, should be easier to maintain now that Molina has had a year to work with the staff. He acknowledged calling the wrong pitch on more than one occasion, though his heart and head were always in the right place.

"I went with the pitcher's best [pitch]," Molina explained. "If he's going to get beat, let him get beat with his best, not because I called the right or wrong pitch."

Molina's faith was reciprocated by the Giants' pitchers, who recorded a 4.11 ERA with him behind the plate, fifth-best among NL catchers.

"All our pitchers are very fortunate to throw to him," right-hander Tim Lincecum said. "He has such a passion for it and cares about it so much. Every pitch has some meaning; every pitch has a point to it."

"Bengie was real quick to learn my style of play," right-hander Brian Wilson said. "It's so difficult to find a catcher who's on the same page. What I want to throw is what he wants to throw, too. Sometimes it's comical out there, because we won't even throw signs down. He can just read me and we'll go right to it."

That's a man who's focused on his job -- not just stray baseballs.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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