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Despite pratfall, Sandoval is a player

Published 4:00 a.m., Thursday, May 14, 2009

  • Pablo Sandoval throws to first during the game against the Nationals. He has been impressing both his teammates and fans alike with his offense and defense on the field. The San Francisco Giants played the Washington Nationals at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, May 12, 2009. The Giants lost the game 3-6. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle / SF
    Pablo Sandoval throws to first during the game against the Nationals. He has been impressing both his teammates and fans alike with his offense and defense on the field. The San Francisco Giants played the Washington Nationals at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, May 12, 2009. The Giants lost the game 3-6. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle / SF

 

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Kung Fu Panda's got hops.

Pablo Sandoval got his nickname last season, compliments of Barry Zito, when he scored by jumping over the Dodgers' catcher.

Wednesday afternoon, with the bases loaded in the seventh, Sandoval went high at third base to snare a sizzling line drive off the bat of Washington Nationals' cleanup man Josh Willingham.

Panda came down with the ball and with a huge bubble-gum bubble that he seemed to have inflated in mid-air. I smell a Bazooka endorsement.

I'm not going to claim that the 5-foot-11, 246-pound (at least) Panda can dunk a basketball, but he got off the ground quickly on that line drive. And he did say before the game that he played some basketball as a kid. A round mound of rebound.

Sandoval's big play at third temporarily saved the Giants, who lost 6-3. They did win the series 2-1, thanks to Sandoval's kung-fu walk-off home run Tuesday night. He showed great jumping ability there, too, when he leaped into the sea of teammates greeting him. Wednesday, Sandoval had a run-scoring single to keep his batting average over .300 (.301).

Panda is only 73 games into his big-league career, but nothing he's doing amazes his teammates.

Zito said he's not surprised at how well Sandoval is playing third base - he is one of three error-free third-basemen in the majors this season.

"He's a great athlete, so it's not surprising at all," Zito said

How good?

Try to think of the last hitter to come out of the Giants' farm system and break into the starting lineup and make this kind of splash. You have to go back to '86, when Will Clark and Robby Thompson were rookies.

And if you think the fans, and his Giants' teammates, are enjoying Sandoval's debut days, you should see the Panda himself.

Before Wednesday's game, asked about his big homer the night before, Sandoval couldn't stop smiling

"My first walk-off," he said. "I was so excited, I could not sleep thinking about it."

If Sandoval is going to become a hardened, jaded big-leaguer, he has a million miles to go. He says things like, "We've got to treat the fans like friends." He couldn't be more cooperative with the media or more appreciated by his teammates.

"It's contagious, his energy, his enthusiasm," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He just has fun playing the game, coming to the ballpark, it's non-stop with him."

"He's a young, exciting guy who comes to play every day, and who can hit," Rich Aurilia said. "He's become a fan favorite because he can hit, and also because of his stature."

Stature, as in "not chiseled." There's a reason they call Sandoval "Kung Fu Panda" and not "Jackie Chan."

But the surplus poundage Panda is packing doesn't seem to slow him down. He's light on his feet and agile at third. He was primarily a first baseman in the minors, and last season he divided time at third, first and catcher.

Going into the offseason, Sandoval wasn't sure where he'd be playing this season, but he dedicated himself to developing his third-base skills. He spent the winter taking grounders at third base, hit by Jose Alguacil, the Giants' roving infield instructor.

"I am waiting for the moment to play third base and show what I've got," Sandoval said last winter.

During every batting practice, Sandoval takes ground balls at third base, maybe 50 or 60 per day, using an extra-small glove to force himself to watch the ball into his hands.

Sandoval is also a back-up catcher and, for now, Zito's personal catcher, although Bochy doesn't like that term. Sandoval would have caught Zito on Wednesday, but he tweaked an ankle Tuesday night when he fell down between second and third.

Bochy, watching his most versatile player and his only .300 hitter go down as if shot, probably swallowed his Bazooka.

Sandoval was fine, just a slight ankle twist. The fall caused much good-natured ribbing from his teammates, who later beat Panda to a pulp when he homered.

Wednesday, during the PA reading of the batting order, mascot Lou Seal stood in front of the Giants' dugout. When Sandoval's name was announced, Seal took a clumsy pratfall.

So Sandoval not only hits and fields, he provides vaudevillian fodder for the mascot. You don't find many pandas with that kind of versatility.

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