The Giants will soon be making their first playoff appearance in five years, but before that, some of San Francisco’s top prospects will get their own playoff experience.
Backed by some of the team’s most prominent minor-league talent, including former De La Salle ace Kyle Harrison, the San Jose Giants enter the final days of the regular season at Low A West. (formerly the California League) fighting for the league’s best record and will open the league’s best-of-five championship series on Tuesday in Fresno.
Guiding San Jose into the playoffs is a very familiar face to the organization – Lenn Sakata. This is Sakata’s fifth different stint in San Jose, a role he has held on and off since 1999.
The 67-year-old Hawaiian native was last seen in San Jose in 2014. But this spring he came out of retirement in favor of San Francisco director of player development Kyle Haines. Haines played three seasons for Sakata, including teams that won the Cal League title in 2005 and 2007. The Sakata Giants were also co-champions in 2001.
These Giants are on the hunt for the franchise’s 10th championship and its first since 2010 – when San Jose won the title with a third baseman named Brandon Crawford.
Here’s a look at who these San Jose Giants are and how they ended up in search of another title:
Watch of the future
San Jose has had its share of lead-laden teams over the years, but this one ranks near the top. Shortstop Marco Luciano, the organization’s highest ranked prospect, and outfielder Jairo Pomares (No.9) left their marks before being promoted to High-A Eugene (also headed to the playoffs), but the current roster includes eight of the top 17 players. players ranked in the system and five of the top eight.
COVID-19 wiped out the minor league season a year ago, so some of the Giants, like Harrison, are making their professional debuts. Harrison, a third-round pick in the 2020 draft and the Giants’ highest-rated pitching prospect (No.5 overall), leads the league with a 3.19 ERA and averages over 14 strikeouts by nine sleeves.
Outfielder Luis Matos, 19, made his full-season debut and was named the team’s MVP. Matos rated the No.3 Giants prospect (between No.2 Joey Bart and No.4 Heliot Ramos) recently had a hit in nine consecutive at-bat appearances – one short of the league record.
The team also benefited from the mid-season arrival of wide receiver Patrick Bailey, the Giants’ 2020 first-round pick and the organization’s No.9 prospect, who beat well over .300 with of power. The organization’s most recent No. 1 draft pick and No. 7 ranked prospect, right-hander Will Bednar, has joined the squad for the playoff race.
The right man for the job
San Jose was a powerhouse in the Cal League, winning five titles from 2001-2010 and reaching the playoffs 14 times since 2001. This is the seventh time in eight seasons at San Jose that Sakata has led the Giants to the playoffs. Its teams reached four consecutive years from 2004 to 2007, winning two titles.
So why would Sakata, a member of the California League and Hawaii Sports Halls of Fame, want to come out of retirement after six years to take the bus from San Jose to Visalia, Rancho Cucamonga and other outposts of? the league ?
“I did this because of my relationship and friendship with the Player Development Coordinator (Haines) – he’s a former player of mine,” Sakata told the Hawaii Herald recently. “So I came back to see what baseball was like in modern times and just to help it.”
It’s like the good old days for Sakata and the Giants. Sakata, a former big-league infielder, prides himself on being an instructor and his former players swear by him. He’s also the most successful manager in San Jose history, and hasn’t lost his touch there either. The team improved to 74-42 with an extra inning win on Wednesday night. His only Giants team that failed to advance to the playoffs in 2014 still finished six games with over 0.500. This year’s squad battled Fresno for the league’s best record all season and after Wednesday night there were 32 games out of 0.500.
How they did
Similar to the Major League Giants, San Jose does a lot of good things. But the backbone of this team is power and pitch.
San Jose broke the franchise’s single-season home run record with about a week to go and, like the parent club, it wasn’t just a big bopper doing the damage. Five Giants have hit double-digit numbers and six others have hit at least seven, including Bailey, who crushed seven in his first 44 games with the team.
The Giants didn’t need a lot of support in the race because the pitching was so dominant. Harrison, Prelander Berroa and Wil Jensen (who competed in the IL on Wednesday) rank 1-2-3 in the league’s ERA race, and reliever Randy Rodriguez has not allowed a point in his last 25 innings, striking out 44 on holds and walking just three during that stretch. The 3.61 team’s ERA is more than a run lower than every other team except Fresno. The Giants also lead the league in shutouts (11) and their opponents’ batting average (0.227).
On Wednesday, the Giants moved closer to half a game from Fresno for first place with four left in the regular season. Both teams have already clinched spots in the best-of-five championship series that begins with games on Tuesday and Wednesday in Fresno. The series moves to San Jose on Friday for Game 3 and remains at Municipal Stadium until the title is decided. Tickets are available on the San Jose Giants website.
These teams know each other very well. The Giants end the regular season with four more games at Fresno and will have faced the Grizzlies 30 times before the playoffs. To reduce travel due to pandemic concerns, San Jose has faced its closest opponents – Fresno and Stockton – in 60 of its 120 regular-season games.
The Grizzlies lead the regular season streak, 14-12, but San Jose ends the regular season on a hot streak, with a seven-game winning streak in Thursday night’s game and winning 11 of the previous 14 games overall.