Brandon Belt, Andrew Susac and Travis Ishikawa: Three visiting players on a special night at Raley Field, batting 3-4-5 in the lineup. All three are headed to an October date of destiny.
The Fresno Grizzlies vs. the Sacramento River Cats, second game of a four-game series, seemed at first glance to be mostly a ballgame featuring a popular San Francisco Giants player on a rehab assignment. Well, it wasn’t quite so routine, especially when taken in context of 3 ½ months later, as the San Francisco Giants head to Kansas City for the World Series opener Tuesday night.
July 1 was a good example of what makes any night at Raley Field so unique and unpredictable. Minor leagues baseball is all about the future, and for the 8,089 there that Tuesday night they all saw a glimpse of what just a few months out no one could have predicted.
The game itself was fairly unremarkable. Sacramento won 5-4 and Belt struck out a couple of times before salvaging one late-inning double. The story, however, was inside the final score and more apparent into October. And, oh yeah, next year Sacramento fans will get to see Giants’ minor leaguer players every night, as the River Cats’ Major League affiliation has changed from the Oakland A’s to San Francisco, beginning in 2015.
Let’s take a look at those three players, then and now, to see why those in attendance on July 1 truly did see something special, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.
Brandon Belt, 26:
July 1: The big draw that night was unquestionably Belt, the Giants’ popular starting first baseman who had been one of the Giants’ hottest early-season hitters. Belt suffered a broken thumb in early May when he was hit by a pitch and he was finally able to begin rehabbing in mid-June, starting out with a stint at the Giants’ Single A San Jose team, before moving on to Fresno. July 1 was the second of three nights Belt would play in Sacramento, and he had homered the night before. The Sacramento Bee ran a big story with pictures in that morning’s paper, and a larger-than-average crowd showed up. An hour before the game, a huge contingent of fans packed the seats down the right-field line, waiting for Belt to come out of the clubhouse and sign autographs. During the game, Belt was relatively quiet, striking out twice before hitting a seventh-inning double, to finish 1-for-4.
October: After Belt’s appearance in Sacramento, he returned to San Francisco later that week and won a weekend game with a home run. But his fortunes turned again, and on July 19, he was hit in the face by a ball during pre-game batting practice, suffering a concussion that kept him out of action until mid-September with the Giants still fighting for a playoff spot. By the time the playoffs rolled around (the Giants had an opening Wild Card play-in game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 1) Belt was back playing every day. In the Division Series against the Washington Nationals, who had the best record in the National League, Belt proved his worth in Game 2. His home run in the top of the 18th inning gave the Giants a 2-1 victory in the longest game in National League post-season history.
Andrew Susac, 24:
July 1: Fresno’s starting catcher that night was a Roseville native who graduated from Jesuit High School. Susac, still with deep ties to the area, where he continued to live at home during the off-season, had a contingent of his own at Raley Field, with a couple of dozen family members and friends in attendance. Several of them leaned over the railing and talked to him in the dugout as he put on his catcher’s gear before the game as the crowd continued to wait for Belt just a few feet away. Susac, a second-round draft pick by the Giants in 2011, the team he had grown up rooting for, had worked his way up the Giants’ minor-league ladder and, after going to Arizona with the club that spring training, was enjoying his most solid season as a pro. When Fresno visited Sacramento back in May, Susac had homered, and on July 1, on first trip to the plate, he drilled a long home run to dead center, his seventh of the season. His wide smile in Fresno’s first-base dugout as he accepted congratulations from his teammates, said it all. Two days later, Susac would be named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team, and he played in that game July 16 in Durham, N.C. During a national broadcast of the game, announcers showed a graphic that stated Susac was being groomed as the Giants’ catcher of the future, projecting him to be the starter in 2015.
October: Back on July 1, the path for Susac’s season seemed clear. He would play out the year as Fresno’s top catcher, and then on Sept. 1, when Major League rosters are expanded, would make his first appearance in a Giants uniform, maybe getting a few starts before the year ended, depending on San Francisco’s playoff chances. That plan all changed on July 25, San Francisco’s backup catcher, Hector Sanchez, suffered a concussion when a foul tip drilled him in the face mask. Later that night, Susac got the call from Manager Bruce Bochy and he joined the team the next day in San Francisco, right in the middle of a big three-game weekend series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a series the Dodgers would sweep. With the Giants trailing 5-0 against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, Susac got his first Big League at-bat, swinging at the first pitch and hitting a hard ground-out to third. His first start came July 29 against the Pittsburgh Pirates and he started again the next day, getting his first hit, a bases-loaded RBI single in a Giants victory, their only win during the six-game home stand. With Sanchez’s injury lingering, Susac stuck around and continued to impress, starting every couple of games to spell Buster Posey, who would then play first base. Susac earned a coveted spot on the Giants’ playoff roster with a solid .273 batting average, three home runs and 19 RBI in 35 games. Though he hasn’t played much during the playoffs, with one hit in two at-bats, Susac is in line to earn a full World Series share.
Travis Ishikawa, 31:
July 1: Definitely the most unlikely story emerging from that night was Ishikawa, who at that time was a journeyman infielder seriously considering retirement. Ishikawa had started the 2014 season in Pittsburgh before he was outright released in April and then signed by the Giants, the team that had originally drafted him. Ishikawa wasn’t a key player with the Giants but he did earn a World Series ring with them in 2010. Since 2010, however, he had bounced around, sharing stints with the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles. With Fresno, Ishikawa was listed as a first baseman, but that night he played in the outfield because of Belt’s presence in the lineup, another foreshadowing of things to come. By July 1, Ishikawa was playing more regularly, and during his second at-bat, after striking out his first time up, the left-hander launched a two-run homer with Susac on first base. Ishikawa would end up with 11 home runs in Fresno and, due to a rash of injuries to Giants outfielders, would join San Francisco on July 29, right about the time Susac did.
October: On Oct. 16, in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ishikawa became just the fourth player in National League history to send his team to the World Series with a walk-off home run. Ishikawa’s three-run blast came in the bottom of the ninth to send a delirious San Francisco crowd into celebration mode as the Giants made their third World Series appearance in five years with the 6-3 win. Ishikawa, starting every game in left field, has seven post-season RBIs heading to the World Series, a scenario he could only dream about back on July 1 in Sacramento.
Photos by Steve Martarano