DETROIT – In a World Series that was supposed to be dominated by multimillionaire behemoths, the littlest man keeps running. As Miguel Cabrera hits slow ground balls and Prince Fielder flails at sliders off home plate, San Francisco's Gregor Blanco sprints across left field, glove extended, ball trapped in the webbing.
Through three games of a World Series that has barely been a series, the MVP might be a player who was a spring training afterthought; a baseball vagabond hoping for another chance at plane rides and five-star hotels. Yes, the Giants' Pablo Sandoval had three home runs in Game 1, but no single San Francisco player has had as much of an impact on the entire series than an outfielder whose name was unknown to most baseball fans until four days ago.
Yet where would the Giants be without him? Would they have won the first game – the one with Sandoval's home runs – were it not for his two diving catches in left field? Would they have won the second game without that magnificent sacrifice bunt that fell off the lip of the infield grass, rolled onto the third base line and died? Could they have won Saturday night's third game had he not lined that ball over the head of Detroit center fielder Austin Jackson for a triple that drove in the first run of a 2-0 win?
And what of that catch in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday when he sprinted across left field, stuck out his glove and caught the ball before running into the wall?
"When it was hit, I said: 'I have to catch that ball no matter what,' " Blanco later said as he stood in the Giants' clubhouse.
"He's a nice story," said San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean.
Every once in a while a story like this appears in the World Series. A player comes from nowhere to be a star. Blanco was not supposed to be a big part of this Giants team. He was a fringe major leaguer, someone who played a bit in Atlanta and Kansas City before injuring his hand last year and spending most of the 2011 season in the outfield of Washington's top minor league team – the Syracuse Chiefs.
The only reason the Giants signed him to a contract and brought him to spring training is because their hitting coach Hensley Meulens said they should. Meulens was managing the Bravos de Margarita in the Venezuelan winter league last year when he saw something new from the player who had been drifting through various big-league clubhouses for a few seasons. He saw strength. Blanco was hitting line drives. His hits were getting into gaps for doubles and triples. The Giants' stadium, AT&T Park, has a big outfield, Meulens thought. He needed hitters who could get the ball in the gap for doubles and triples.
Meulens understands hitting, obviously, but years in the Venezuelan leagues taught him to understand something else. Hunger. He knows when a player is desperate to make the major leagues. He is sure Blanco was humbled by playing for the Syracuse Chiefs and he could see how much Blanco wanted to make it back to the big time.
And how Blanco worked. He came to spring training talking about making the Giants' roster. He arrived to the ballpark early. He lifted weights. He ran. He had coaches hit fly balls. He took lots of batting practice. Tons of batting practice. And it worked. He made the team. He started the year in right field and was playing decently until he suddenly went into a horrible slump. Suddenly he couldn't hit anything.
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Meulens suspected he knew the problem. Blanco had been working too hard. He spent too much time running sprints and lifting weights. But he really spent too much time taking batting practice. At one point, Meulens figured Blanco was taking as many as 150 batting practice swings a day. After the winter-league seasons, the fight to make the Giants and the rush to start the season, he wore down.
Meulens told him to stop. No more swinging. No batting cage. No practice. Just rest.
"Sometimes you need to use reverse psychology," Meulens said. "Less is more."
After Blanco's rest came word that Melky Cabrera, the league's leading hitter, had been suspended. There was a hole in left field that needed to be filled. Blanco took that spot. And there he happened to be this World Series when the line drives came his way in Game 1 or he had to make that perfect throw in Game 2 to help get Fielder at home plate. And where he was to catch that fly ball in the ninth on Saturday night.
In many ways Blanco is like a lot of these Giants: forgotten, cast away, desperate to be noticed. When third base coach Tim Flannery talks about an offense of "slingshots and rocks," he might as well be talking about Blanco who looks far smaller than the 5-foot-11 he is listed as standing. He's a player who can get on base enough times to make the 26 steals he had this year be useful. He drops perfect bunts. He sprawls on the grass to kill Detroit rallies.
If he isn't the glue to three Giants victories in this series, who is? If the MVP is really the most essential player on the field, isn't he the one who has brought San Francisco to the brink of a championship?
And all he could do on Saturday night was smile and say: "Crazy, man, unbelievable. I feel like I'm in a dream right now."
He might not be ready to wake up. Not yet.
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