Friday, December 8

‘Unemotional’ Joc Pederson burns his former team in Giants’ charged win over Dodgers

So many emotions and neurotransmitter molecules could have competed for space between Joc Pederson’s ears in the fifth inning Friday night.

There was the adrenaline of being a Palo Alto native competing on the home side of a Giants-Dodgers game in San Francisco for the first time. There was the unique frisson of excitement that only a rivalry-stoked, near-sellout crowd can create. There was the joy of pulling into first base and reuniting with Freddie Freeman, who won a World Series with him in Atlanta last season. There was the affront that players often feel when they stand in the on-deck circle and the opposing manager issues an intentional walk. And there was this additional provocation: the man in the visiting dugout who walked Wilmer Flores to load the bases for Pederson was none other than Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.

For years in Los Angeles, Pederson lobbied Roberts for the chance to start against left-handed pitchers. I have never received it. In seven seasons, I have just started 59 games against them. Now that same manager was setting up a left-on-left matchup in the game’s most critical moment. Was he daring Pederson to beat him? Maybe. This much was clear: Roberts was betting that he wouldn’t.

What soup of emotions did Pederson feel in that moment? Vexation? anger? Contempt? Mockery? Announcement? Schadenfreude?

“It’s hard to put into words,” Pederson said. “The best word I have is unemotional.”

Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, when he was walking barefoot in the outfield grass and his encounter with Tommy Pham resulted in the Fantasy Football slap heard ’round the world, Pederson wasn’t just out for a stroll. He was working on his breathing with Giants human performance coach Harvey Martin. Going barefoot allowed him to feel connected to the earth. Focusing on the rhythm of his breath helped him to quiet his mind and exist in the present.

“I think it’s the hardest thing to do in sports,” Pederson said. “It’s the hardest thing to do in life. When you’re at your best, your heart rate isn’t up. You’re not breathing super fast. Everything comes easy and effortless. You want to attempt to repeat that as much as possible, and for 162 games, it’s not going to be there every day. That’s not a realistic goal. But you can strive for that and notice when things do get offline what raises it and what doesn’t.

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“It’s a constant battle to keep in between the ears as calm as possible.”

So in what might have been an emotionally weedy moment, Pederson cleared out all distractions, set aside external motivations and focused on getting a pitch to barrel up. Left-hander Justin Bruihl gave him one. And Pederson slashed a two-run single into right field that broke open a one-run game and helped the Giants to a sorely needed 7-2 victory.

The Giants hadn’t played clean or consistent baseball over the past month. The Dodgers were already threatening to leave them behind in the NL West standings. Even with an expanded postseason that will include three wild-card teams and a best-of-3 opening round, the NL is too competitive to let a division race and a path to the playoffs slip away in June. The Braves are beginning to take off. The Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi and immediately surged back to .500. The Padres are just as talented as last season and appear to be standing on sturdier legs.

The Giants were already 6 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. They couldn’t afford to get bossed in this three-game series.

But these two teams brought out the best in one another again and again last season, when the Giants won 107 games and the Dodgers became the first team in baseball history to win 106 and not finish in first place. In a strange sense, perhaps the Dodgers arrived at precisely the right time.

They appeared to bring the best out of the Giants again.

On a night when both teams lost their starting pitchers to injuries, Darin Ruf hit two solo home runs and contributed an RBI single, and the Giants mixed clean defense with competitive at-bats. Giants right-hander Jakob Junis kept the Dodgers off balance with sliders and cutters through five strong innings but grabbed at his left hamstring after throwing a pitch in the sixth. He was diagnosed with a strain and is headed for an MRI exam — and likely the injured list. The Dodgers probably have even greater concerns about Walker Buehler, who was pulled after four innings and 70 pitches with what the team described as right elbow discomfort.

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For all the Dodgers’ depth, they might be in bigger trouble when it comes to their rotation. The Giants will have to cover a bullpen game with Sam Long on the mound to start on Saturday and now they’ll need a solution when it would be Junis’ day to pitch next Wednesday in the homestand finale against the Kansas City Royals. But after that, the situation should improve as they begin to get some pitchers back from the injured list.

Alex Cobb is eligible to return June 19 in Pittsburgh. The Giants can use a day off to push up everyone else to pitch on regular rest. They’d need a fifth starter again on June 21 at Atlanta, which just so happens to be the day that Anthony DeSclafani will be eligible to be activated from the 60-day injured list. DeSclafani is scheduled to make a rehab start on Saturday for Triple-A Sacramento, and is perfectly lined up for a second rehab outing that would put him in line to pitch on the day he’s eligible.

Matthew Boyd is graduating from bullpens to throwing live batting practice in the coming days, too. He should be an option for the rotation in a few weeks.

Losing Junis for any length of time would be a frustrating blow given how well he’s pitched, but it might not be debilitating in the short term. Third baseman Evan Longoria also exited with left hamstring tightness, although the move was more precautionary.

The game provided catharsis for others. Ruf’s two-homer game provided a lift after he buried his father last week. As important as it might be to manage your emotions on the field, it also can be important at times to use the field as a personal refuge.

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“Yeah, it’s been a tough couple of weeks,” Ruf said. “To go out and perform like that in a big game when things haven’t gone great for me this season, it’s pretty special. (The support) has been unbelievable. Overwhelming at times. But to know that so many people care about you is pretty special.”

At the game’s inflection point Friday night, when the hitter in the box could have allowed so many thoughts to flood his mind, he was not overwhelmed. Perhaps after last season, when Pederson had to leave the Dodgers as a free agent to pursue an expanded role with the Cubs and found himself as a chief instigator for a World Series winner in Atlanta, he’s made his peace with how he’s valued within the game . He has started just five times this season against lefties—once following a three-homer game. Perhaps he’s figured out for himself that there’s nothing to be gained by giving in to grievance.

“I played there for a long time,” Pederson said of his seven seasons with the Dodgers. “You’re right, I didn’t play a lot against lefties. I’m not going to put too much thought into it, like I really want to stick it to them. I’m over that. We won the ballgame. I came through with a nice hit. I’ll kind of move forward and not make too much of it.

“It’s easy to overanalyze it or over-hype yourself up. Like, ‘I don’t get opportunities so I’ve got to take this one.’ It just makes it harder. It’s hard to put into words. You don’t want to say it’s like you care less. That doesn’t sound good. The best word I have is ‘unemotional.’ Then you’re able to put yourself in the best position to succeed.”

(Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press)

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