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Slater rewards Melvin's faith by walking off Astros in extras

Slater rewards Melvin's faith by walking off Astros in extras originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO -- Austin Slater has spent years honing a routine to prepare for games in which he might get just one swing to make a difference.

Around the third or fourth inning, the longest-tenured Giant starts stretching and getting his body ready. He goes through many of the same exercises and drills as his teammates, except he pretends that the eighth inning is his first inning. He has been one of the best pinch-hitters in baseball in recent years, and given how committed the last two Giants managers have been to a Slater-Mike Yastrzemski platoon, his nights often are spent waiting for one crack at a left-handed reliever.

With the Houston Astros in town, that reliever would be Josh Hader. Before and during Monday's game, Slater watched clips of Hader, including Yastrzemski's memorable walk-off grand slam two years ago. Sometimes it's nice to fill your brain with ways in which you can succeed, but watching the Yastrzemski slam also made Slater wonder if he would actually get his shot.

When Hader jogged to the mound in the bottom of the ninth with the Giants and Astros tied at 1-1, Yastrzemski was due up first. Bench coach Ryan Christenson told Slater to get ready.

"I was like, 'Are you sure?' " Slater recalled later, laughing. "They were like, 'Yeah, we're sure.' "

That was the matchup the staff wanted and the role Slater has. The slam was memorable, but Yastrzemski had only faced Hader two other times, walking and grounding out.

Giants manager Bob Melvin played his right-handed counter, but Slater popped up. An inning later, he won the game.

Slater smoked a fastball from right-handed reliever Rafael Montero off the wall in left, giving the Giants a 4-3 win over the Astros. They scored three runs in the bottom of the 10th, with Slater following RBI singles from Brett Wisely and Patrick Bailey.

The moment easily was the biggest of the year for Slater, who entered the night batting .156. After a spring filled with rehab and months of struggles at the plate, Slater finally got to exhale when he reached first base and turned to wait for his teammates.

"I was just trying to get the ball in the air, stay short and simple," Slater said. "Obviously whenever you can come through big for your team and in a spot where you've been struggling, it feels that much better. That definitely lifted a big weight off my shoulders. It felt really nice."

After struggling through April and early May, Slater went on the IL with a concussion. The latest injury kept him from having a chance to shake off his rough start, but he found a silver lining in a lengthy rehab assignment.

Slater finally had a chance to get four at-bats a day and work on his swing and approach, and he also spent some time talking to sports psychologists, something that has worked for him in the past. He said Monday that he "lost some edge" somewhere along the way, but he felt that when he returned to the big leagues he once again was grinding and focusing on the process of just having good plate appearances.

Melvin never lost faith, even as noise grew louder outside the building. It was a pretty automatic call to give Slater his shot Monday, even though Yastrzemski had tripled earlier in the game.

"It's tough for a lefty off Hader," Melvin said. "Yeah he has had a home run earlier in his career off him, but leading off an inning, too, it's [a chance for] a walk, it's a little more speed. Yaz has the only RBI of the game [at that point], but Hader is really a tough at-bat for a lefty."

The slam came two weeks before Hader was traded to Melvin's San Diego Padres, and Slater nearly matched it Monday. He came up with the bases loaded and struck a ball that traveled 365 feet and bounced off the padding halfway up the wall in left. Because the Giants needed only one run, Slater ended up with just a long walk-off single.

Slater joked later that he would have liked to get credit for the extra-base hit. He doesn't have one through 47 at-bats, but for a night at least, it was easy to smile.

"He put a pretty good charge into that one," Melvin said. "It's pretty rewarding for him for all of the hard work."

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