The Giants need to unleash Kung Fu Panda

PHILADELPHIA – One San Francisco Giants player was all but ignored as a herd of reporters drifted from locker to locker in the visiting clubhouse, asking about Roy Oswalt’s(notes) dominance against them and the silver lining of the National League Championship Series moving West tied a game apiece.

Pablo Sandoval(notes) hunched forward in a chair, his ample gut spilling over his belt. He fiddled with his cell phone. Sandoval seemed intent on proving it’s possible for a 270-pound man to be invisible in a crowded room.

“I’ve had a difficult time,” Sandoval said to me in a near-whisper when I stopped by to chat. “I’m waiting for my moment. I’m thinking about it every minute.”

Pablo Sandoval has been waiting for his big moment, which may come sometime in the next two games.
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

His moment could be at hand. For the Giants to overcome the Philadelphia Phillies and advance to the World Series, Sandoval must again become Kung Fu Panda. His bat must sizzle. His ebullient personality must make fans at AT&T Park dance. He must become the Round Mound of Pound, and he must make his quirky batter’s box ritual a prelude to line drives and RBIs.

Sandoval has been in such a horrific slump that utility infielder Mike Fontenot(notes) played third base in his place in the Phillies’ 6-1 victory Sunday night. While Sandoval fidgeted on the bench, Fontenot fouled up the game, making a throwing error that led to the Phillies’ first-inning run, allowing an infield popup to fall in the fourth and throwing to the wrong base on a sacrifice bunt in the seventh.

The Giants are better off playing Sandoval and hoping he can regain some semblance of the offense he produced in 2009, when he batted .330 and was sixth in the NL in slugging percentage (.556) and total bases (318). And he just might. Sandoval batted .330 at home this season; his abysmal .208 average on the road accounted for his .266 overall mark. More distressing is that his OPS dropped from .943 to .732.

Sandoval’s problem is that he swings at everything. Last year the lack of discipline was obscured by a Vladimir Guerrero(notes)-like knack for making hard contact in spite of himself. This year, he rarely sees a good pitch to hit. Why should a pitcher throw him a strike when he’ll swing at anything?

“I’m trying to be more patient,” he said. “It’s easy to say and hard to do.”

Yet this is not the time to dwell on regular-season failures. This is not the time to deny Sandoval at-bats. He’s not going to reinvent himself overnight. It’s just that he’s the Giants’ best chance at adding a potent bat. Let the Panda out of his cage.

Or doghouse, although manager Bruce Bochy winced at the term.

“He’s not in a doghouse, not with how hard he fights and works to get better,” he said. “He’s giving it everything he’s got.”

Bochy said Sandoval will get at-bats in San Francisco. The only question is whether he’ll start in Game 3 against left-hander Cole Hamels(notes) or wait until Game 4 against right-hander Joe Blanton(notes). The switch-hitting Sandoval batted .227 with just one of his 13 home runs against lefties. But if Juan Uribe’s(notes) wrist contusion hasn’t healed, the only alternative would be Fontenot.

It’s time to find out if the Round Mound of Pound can become the Round Mound of Rebound (with apologies to Charles Barkley) and make a comeback.

“There’s been value to him watching from the bench,” Bochy said. “He’s seeing the game from a different perspective. Maybe he’s quieting down.”

Sandoval entered the game in the seventh inning Sunday and walked in his only plate appearance. He even abbreviated his routine. Normally, he uses his bat like a drum stick, pounding the on-deck circle four times, tapping his toes and shins each four times, then hitting his helmet like it’s a cymbal. He takes a few hurried steps toward the pitcher and goes through a few more machinations before digging in.

Against Oswalt, he did a bit of bat tapping and went to work.

Afterward, it was his fingers doing the tapping on his phone. Sandoval sent text messages to his mother and brother in California. He’s excited about coming home. He loves the support Giants fans give him. A year ago he was the team’s most marketable player besides Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum(notes). Thousands of fans wore Panda hats that resembled miniature bearskins rugs.

“I love the park and I love the people,” he said. “I want to play. I just don’t write out the lineup.”

No, Bochy does. And he’s finally convinced that unleashing the Panda, overweight and undisciplined but capable of doing damage, gives the Giants their best chance to win.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Monday, Oct 18, 2010