Giant Hurdles

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Photos by JORDAN IKEDA/Rafu Shimpo Above, Giants back up first baseman, Travis Ishikawa takes ground balls before Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodgers Stadium. While he struggles against left-handed pitching, Ishikaw is a wizard in the field, finishing out the 2009 season as one of the top-rated defensive first basemen in all of MLB. (Photos by JORDAN IKEDA/Rafu Shimpo)

By JORDAN IKEDA

Rafu Sports Editor

Travis Ishikawa is in the midst of his second full season with the San Francisco Giants. Born in Seattle to a Japanese father and Caucasian mother, Ishikawa made his Major League debut four years ago, April 18, 2006 against the Arizona D-Backs.

The 6-foot, 3-inch first baseman showed promise even then with a .292 average and .820 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). However, he wouldn’t get another shot at the Bigs for two more years after a disappointing 2007 minor league season.

In ‘08, he blistered Double-A and Triple-A pitching with a .299 average, .955 OPS and 24 homeruns which earned him a call up where he hit .274 with three jacks in 33 games for the Giants. Despite his inability to hit lefties, things looked to be on the rise when he earned the ‘09 starting gig in spring training last year.

Of course, those who have followed the 26-year-old know that by August, the team had traded for Ryan Garko, and Ishikawa found himself platooning at first. That situation has mostly stuck this year, Giants brass going with the veteran Aubrey Huff who was signed in the offseason to man the right corner pocket. Ishikawa didn’t help his cause either when he tore a couple ligaments in his toe in the offseason, setting him back several months.

“Kind of taking on a new role this year,” Ishikawa told the Rafu Shimpo when the Giants visited the Dodgers this past weekend. “Just learning the odds and ends of this new role coming off the bench, playing defense, getting pinch hits here and there. Just really trying to keep myself mentally prepared all game. Watching a lot of film, taking a lot of swings, making sure I’m loose and staying warm. Just taking that approach.”

In his first at-bat of the season, a pinch-hit opportunity, that approach worked quite nicely as he hit a homerun, on the road (no less) against the Houston Astros. The road and left-handed pitching have been like his Lois Lane and kryptonite. One has nagged him is entire career (.615 OPS against lefties for his career), the other saps him of any and all power (.221 slugging percentage away in 58 games last year).

Ironically, minus those two factors, Ishikawa had a decent .730 OPS against righties last season and put up Superman-like numbers at home, .349 average, .935 OPS and 7 big flies in 62 games. In addition, based on a variety of advanced statistical metrics, including Rtot (total fielding runs above average) and zone rating, Ishikawa ranked among the top five first basemen in the Majors in defensive prowess.

“A lot of work, a lot of prep time,” Ishikawa said concerning his defensive abilities. “Taking a lot of ground balls. Having a routine. I think a lot of it has to do with confidence. I believe I’m going to make every play that comes to me. Mentally, I already know I’m going to make the play before it happens. I think that gives me the ability to make that play. A lot of it is hard work. As a kid, I always took pride in my defense. It was something I always wanted to be the best at, something I always worked at. And it’s just carried over throughout the years.”

Unfortunately, hitting southpaws and playing well on the road is half the game.

Ishikawa hit a homerun in his first at-bat, a pinch hit situation, this year.

While he hasn’t gotten much opportunity, it must be noted he’s got one hit and a walk in three plate appearances on the road—that one hit being a homer. As for the lefty-issues, those continue. He’s gotten two ABs against southpaws this year and struck out both times.

“For me, I’m not worrying about mechanics as much,” he said. “As far as I am, I’m just trying to see the ball. I’m only getting the one or two at-bats a day, so I don’t really want to be spending too much time thinking about how to better my swing. I’m just trying to see the ball and hit it as hard as I can somewhere and hope that it falls in for a hit.”

Despite losing two in a row, the Giants (8-5) are currently leading the National League west, and were the only team to go 4-0 to begin the season—a development that surprised everyone but the Giants themselves.

“I think the team has a lot of good camaraderie,” Ishikawa said. “We seem to play really well together. We have fun. We’re always loose and relaxed. I think that plays a huge impact. Having that relaxed state, plus winning some come-from-behind games early on in the year kind of gives us that confidence too. Now, we can feel like every game we have a chance to win no matter how far down we are.”

Ishikawa’s chances of getting more at-bats diminish the more hits Juan Uribe and Aubrey Huff rack up, especially considering that all-star Freddy Sanchez will be suiting up at second base within a few days thus pushing Uribe’s at-bats into first base.

Despite that, Ishikawa will continue to get opportunities to show his stuff thanks to his tight glove work.

All he needs to do now is dump his metaphorical Lois Lane (left-handed pitching) and his career will take flight.

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