Belt making big strides at the plate for Giants
SAN FRANCISCO (AP)
Madison Bumgarner is quick to remind Brandon Belt who hit the first home run between them this year.
Yes, the pitcher won that one.
And it is Bumgarner taking the credit for getting Belt back on track, too.
All but gone are those constant ''Baby Giraffe'' references to Belt and his long neck that he dealt with all of last season as a rookie, when someone even sent a giraffe plant to the clubhouse as a gift. While he has never minded his nickname much, he is a lot happier now being known for something else.
At last, the talk has turned to Belt's long swing. He is emerging as a steady force in the lineup the way the San Francisco Giants had so hoped he would.
It has been quite a process to get to this point, and this is only his second major league season.
''I think the game has slowed down and it has simplified,'' Belt said. ''I was trying to force hits out of myself.''
Some fans were down on him, others wanted him to just get his shot. Belt's bosses were growing impatient as he struggled to make the adjustments despite all the extra work with hitting coach Hensley Meulens. He even heard friendly razzing from Bumgarner when the pitcher hit his first home run of the season before Belt had even cleared the fences.
As Belt's home run drought stretched into months, he tried everything to tweak his approach for more productive at-bats. Standing up tall in the batter's box in a new stance seems to have done the trick.
''The doubt kind of creeps into your head and you kind of question yourself a lot when you're not doing so well,'' Belt said. ''But when you have the support of the fans out there it kind of gives you a little positive light when you're kind of in a dark place sometimes, so I definitely appreciate it.''
Playing every day sure has helped his cause. He recently had a career-best, 11-game hitting streak, with four home runs and 12 RBIs during that span. He is batting .303 (20 for 66) in June after he hit .230 in the season's opening two months.
''It's not easy when you're making some changes. It takes time to get comfortable,'' manager Bruce Bochy said. ''He has worked hard at it. He was closed off quite a bit, and that kept him from using his legs probably as much as you'd like a hitter to use. He had trouble using the whole field. He was going to left field very well but he had trouble turning on the ball because he was blocking himself out. He's gotten a little more upright, and that's helped free him up, too.''
Then came that elusive home run.
Bumgarner connected on June 12 against Houston, then Belt finally hit his first longball of the year just five innings later.
''I take credit for getting him hot,'' Bumgarner joked during a recent series in Oakland. ''He didn't hit a home run until I did. He was embarrassed.''
Belt can laugh about it all now. Now that he is doing what the Giants believed he could all along when they gave him a spot on the 2011 opening day roster - who can forget that made-for-TV moment of Bochy breaking the news and Belt breaking down in tears?
''Yeah, he probably can (take credit),'' Belt said a few minutes later upon being told of Bumgarner's remarks. ''I was pretty upset he hit a home run before me. Kind of lit a fire under my butt and got started.''
Now that Belt has emerged as a regular in the Giants' lineup, he is showing the consistency the Giants had been so patiently - well, sort of - waiting to see.
''It probably helped Brandon knowing he's going to be out there every day,'' Bochy said.
Belt never had a legitimate chance to find his rhythm with the Giants last season,
The soft-spoken Texan, who stands 6 foot 5, always has said the right thing along the way. He would keep working until his time came. Whenever his name was written into the lineup, he promised to be ready.
Struggling at baseball's highest level hasn't been easy on Belt, a power left-handed hitter and sure-handed first baseman selected with San Francisco's fifth-round draft pick in 2009.
Last year alone, he bounced between the big leagues and Triple-A Fresno while having four stints with the Giants. He also spent time on the disabled list with a hairline fracture in his left wrist after he was hit by a pitch from St. Louis' Trever Miller last June.
That's after he earned his shot in 2011 thanks to sizzling minor league statistics. He batted .352 with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs in 136 games between high Class A, Double-A and Triple-A in 2010. He wound up with 76 extra-base hits, a .455 on-base percentage, drew 93 walks and stole 22 bases in 2010.
Now, Belt has come a long way since his uncertain status at the start of this season, when Brett Pill stuck around to share time at first while playing primarily against left-handed pitchers. Aubrey Huff also would play first and some left field. Now, Pill is at Triple-A Fresno, Huff is on the disabled list after injuring himself celebrating Matt Cain's perfect game on June 13, and Belt is now the guy.
Until that recent hitting streak, Belt had never experienced such a run in the majors.
''No, not at this level. Not even close,'' he said. ''That's why it's so nice just to get up here and know that on any given at-bat that I can help contribute and help be productive. So that's just my main goal right now.''