Before Year 10 of the Belt Wars, reinforcements arrived.
During Giants manager Gabe Kapler’s tense introductory press conference, he brought up his new first baseman at one point, pointing out how much he enjoyed watching Belt work a plate appearance. That positive reinforcement was no one-time deal.
The new staff has been in Belt’s corner since arriving, but that will only go so far during a season. No matter how strongly Kapler might believe in Belt’s sense of the strike zone and approach to hitting, this is a staff that has embraced platoons, and Belt got caught up in that wave when a foot injury kept him out of most of July’s summer camp.
Platoons are meant to gain a small edge, but that also leaves wiggle room when you’re a veteran who has fallen into one. You can make yourself so valuable that there’s no advantage to starting a different kind of hitter in your spot, and right now that’s what Belt is doing.
The first baseman is hotter than anyone in the game at the moment, and he sparked a 10-8 win over the Dodgers on Tuesday that extended the Giants’ winning streak to seven games and was capped by Donovan Solano’s first career walk-off.
DONNIE BARRELS WALKS IT OFF
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) August 26, 2020
Solano hit a two-run homer in the 11th, giving the Giants (15-16) their fourth comeback of the night. The first two came because of Belt, who wiped out a three-run deficit with a homer in the first inning and then stunned All-Star closer Kenley Jansen with a game-tying shot to dead center in the ninth.
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“The idea the whole season was to force my way back into it,” Belt said. “I know that when I get going it doesn’t really matter if it’s a righty or a lefty. This is no different than any other season. I’ve had to prove myself a lot.”
Belt’s up-and-down swings in the big leagues tend to be more pronounced than most, but the streaky hitter has never been quite this hot. When he took Jansen deep in the ninth, Belt reached base in an 11th consecutive plate appearance, the longest streak by a Giant since Barry Bonds in 2006. Belt finished the night with four hits, a walk, two runs and five RBI. His homer off Julio Urias in the first was his first hit in eight at-bats against a lefty this year.
Belt has always been streaky, but he said the run he’s on right now is about more than just seeing the ball well. He has been around long enough that he knows exactly what he wants to do every time up to the plate, but for most of the last two years, his body wouldn’t allow it.
Belt had knee surgery in 2018 and never felt right last season. A second offseason of rehab, plus three unexpected months at home, have his legs back under him.
“I’ve been working. I’ve been working hard, man,” Belt said. “I’ve been putting in a lot of work to make sure I can get back on the field to be productive. The physical aspect has been missing the past year or year and a half or so. I feel like I’m back to where I want to be both mentally and physically.”
Belt should be back to a full-time role, too, although his biggest game in years comes at a funny time. The Giants face Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday, and nobody has given Belt more trouble. But with the way he’s swinging right now, maybe it won’t matter.
That seems to be the case for all the Giants this year. Solano, a star of the first three weeks, had dropped into a deep slump, but he capped a wild back-and-forth night with a blast to deep left.
“He ran into a stretch of 25 or so plate appearances where he just wasn’t finding the sweet spot,” Kapler said. “I think he picked the right time to have it click.”
Kapler is having it all click, too. He made a late lineup tweak, swapping Belt and Evan Longoria in the order to get Belt’s left-handed bat further away from Mike Yastrzemski’s given the lefties in the Dodgers bullpen. They combined for eight hits in their new spots, with Longoria scoring four runs.
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It’s all clicking right now for a team that’s firmly in the NL Wild Card race. If the season ended today, the Giants would have the eighth and final spot in the National League.
“They believe in themselves,” Kapler said. “They believe that they’re always in a baseball game.”