Giants hurlers focus on pitching in with bats

Giants hurlers focus on pitching in with bats

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Since pitchers make a living by striving to prevent runs, it makes sense that they devote effort toward trying to generate scoring, also.

Hitting often seems to be an afterthought for pitchers. Don't tell that to the Giants. Their postseason surge last October included four consecutive victories in which a pitcher drove in a run. That streak included the last three games of the National League Championship Series and Game 1 of the World Series.

It behooves San Francisco's pitchers to become more than just automatic outs. They play home games at AT&T Park, where runs are always hard to come by. Home or away, the Giants tend to play close games, primarily because of their effective pitching. Though the Giants improved offensively last year, ranking sixth in the league in scoring, they're still not the kind of team that often will outslug opponents.

And if the pitchers' proficient postseason hitting doesn't convince them that they can make an impact in the batter's box as well as on the mound, nothing will.

Said third-base coach Tim Flannery, the Giants' bunting tutor, "I tell the pitchers, you're going to spend all week looking over videotape and how you're going to get the opponents out. The weirdest thing is, your at-bats could be the biggest of the game, because of our offense."

Bunting for a sacrifice remains a pitcher's top offensive priority. But with pitch counts having become sacred, a pitcher can inconvenience his counterpart from the opposing team with a pesky plate appearance.

"You don't go up there swinging big and trying to pull the ball or swinging early in the count," said Giants left-hander Barry Zito, who began the RBI streak with a bunt single in Game 5 of the NLCS and ended it with a single off Detroit ace Justin Verlander in the Series opener. "You want to work the pitcher and see five or six pitches in an at-bat if you can."

NL pitchers, who hit .129 last season, never will match the offensive presence of American League designated hitters, whose combined batting average was nearly twice as high (.256). But bats are more than just accessories in the hands of Giants pitchers. Besides their October prowess, San Francisco's pitchers ranked third in the NL with 19 runs scored and tied for fourth in the league with 18 RBIs.

This productivity isn't limited to the Giants.

"Very rarely when you're going through a lineup that you're facing do you hear, 'The pitcher can't hit.' Everybody handles the bat pretty well," Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said. "It's just the way the game is now. You're seeing better athletes that are pitchers."

When Vogelsong initially reached the Majors with the Giants in 2000, their staff featured outstanding hitters -- by pitchers' standards -- such as Shawn Estes, Livan Hernandez, Kirk Rueter and Russ Ortiz. They enlivened batting practice for themselves by following a routine which, said Vogelsong, remains a custom with current Giants pitchers.

As Vogelsong said, "We don't just get in the cage and hit."

The pitchers pair off into two-man teams, with that day's starting pitcher excluded. After a round of bunting and "slashing" (faking a bunt, then pulling back the bat and swinging), the game begins in earnest. If a pitcher hits a single, his partner has to bunt him ahead. If the sacrifice attempt is considered successful, the bunter stays in the box and tries to slash the phantom runner to third base. Once that's accomplished, the batter tries to drive in the run.

"We're having fun," Vogelsong said. "But at the same time, there's some backbone to it."

The Giants have proven that all this practice and diligence can pay off.

"If we get hits and ribbies, that's way over and above anything we're trying to do," Zito said. "We expect to execute good at-bats, make the pitcher throw strikes and certainly get the bunts down every time. Sometimes you grind it out like that and the ball will find your barrel every now and then."

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