Panda's comeback trail runs through Raley Field

Recently signed San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval continues his quest to return to the big leagues, playing for the River Cats on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 at Raley Field in West Sacramento.
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Recently signed San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval continues his quest to return to the big leagues, playing for the River Cats on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 at Raley Field in West Sacramento.

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Is it too late for Giants to save the Panda? Clock is ticking on Sandoval’s career

By Ailene Voisin

July 25, 2017 09:44 PM

The part about the grass being greener elsewhere? Well, Pablo Sandoval sure blasted that theory out of the ballpark, didn’t he?

The once beloved Panda, the former Giants third baseman known for his nimble feet, soft hands, hitting proficiency and amiable personality, left with a bang and returned three years later with a whimper.

As he continues his comeback, he gives his confession, recites his regrets about taking the money (a $95 million contract) and running to the Boston Red Sox, and swears that if he could do it over again, he never would have left the place where he enjoyed prolonged, if occasionally interrupted success.

“The things I said (about Giants organization), I apologized for, because I’m a human being,” Sandoval said late Tuesday after going 1 for 4 in his River Cats debut. “I was emotional at that moment. I came here to prove that I can be the guy that I was here. I just came here to play my game, play the way I can play. Try to get better. Stay healthy. Be happy.”

But the gut issue is this: Can the endangered species – aka the Panda – be saved?

Sandoval might have left his heart in San Francisco when he bolted for Boston, but he presumably left everything else in the Bay Area as well. His glove. His mobility. His stroke from the right side. A recent Red Sox scouting report on the Venezuela native reads something like this: Arrived at spring training in much better shape than the previous two seasons; despite substantial weight loss, could not run or field his position; struggled to hit from the right side, so no longer is a formidable switch-hitting threat.

In other words, while Giants fans continue to debate whether to forgive and forget, rehashing the unflattering comments Sandoval directed at everyone in the organization not named Bruce Bochy or Hunter Pence, the clock and a career stunningly tick away.

One of the great mysteries of these past three seasons is how things could have gone so terribly wrong for Sandoval, who turns 31 on Aug. 11. Thirty-one. In baseball, that’s barely out of diapers. He should be in the physical prime of his career, not reduced to groveling for a job and forced to prove that he can stay healthy, keep losing weight, still play a mean third base and get his groove back from the right side.

None of that sounds particularly unreasonable or unattainable, until one looks closer at his three-year skid. After hitting .294 in seven seasons with the Giants (and never below .268), Sandoval hit .237 with 14 home runs and 59 RBI in his injury-plagued years in Boston, bottoming out after three games and shoulder surgery in 2016. Though he showed up at spring training this year noticeably lighter, if far from svelte, he was only modestly better; he was hitting .212 and considered a defensive liability when released by the Red Sox.

So, yes, that indeed was Panda playing third on a Tuesday night in West Sacramento, batting second and wearing No. 47 instead of his familiar, but too-snug No. 48. He switched to the looser jersey following batting practice, during which he knocked several sharp line drives from the left side and took another 10 rips right-handed.

“The jersey was too small,” he said, laughing, after the River Cats’ 4-3 victory over the Round Rock Express. “Too small, so I changed it.”

After receiving a nice ovation from the crowd of 7,247 as he took the field, Sandoval flashed some of his old nifty footwork when he backpedaled and snagged a high pop into shallow left by Jared Hoying. He wasn’t as impressive in his first two at-bats against right-hander Clayton Blackburn – grounding out to shortstop and on a one-hopper to second base – before doubling to right and scoring the tying run moments later in the fifth. In his one at-bat from the right side, he popped meekly to second off lefty reliever Dario Alvarez before departing at the end of the seventh.

So what now? Until Eduardo Nunez was traded to Boston later Tuesday night, Sandoval was expected to spend the next few days with the River Cats.

“I don’t know,” he said of his immediate future, adding that he heard about Nunez but had not spoken with anyone from the Giants. “That’s not my decision.”

Bochy, who has a strong affinity for his veterans, has been pretty clear about the past few days about what he wants to see.

“We’re looking for anybody who could help us win ballgames,” the Giants manager said. “We’ve had a rough year. This is pretty much a free look at a player who’s done some good things in this game and has talent to hit a baseball. Sometimes a change of scenery can get a player back to where he was, and he was pretty good here.”

Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose. What’s a little help among northern California friends? Other than turning the other cheek and ignoring the sharp critique Sandoval uttered as he walked out the door three years ago, the Giants have nothing to lose. The Red Sox are paying the bulk of Pablo’s remaining salary. Nunez is gone. Third baseman-in-waiting Christian Arroyo is sidelined indefinitely with a wrist injury. And Sandoval, well, not so long ago, he was a productive, at times electrifying player.

If he somehow pulled off the improbable, recapturing the charisma and skill set that made him a fan favorite, the Giants would joyfully guzzle bottles of selective amnesia. They would also thank Sandoval for the memories and reward him with another paycheck. Soon enough they will learn whether their Panda can be saved.

In a bid to return to the major leagues, third baseman Pablo Sandoval (wearing #38) goes through drills before Tuesday's River Cats game at Raley Field in West Sacramento.


Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin