ATLANTA – If it’s never happened to you before, getting traded in the middle of a season can be a jarring experience.
It felt that way for second baseman Marco Scutaro when he came to the Giants in 2012. For at least a week, maybe two, he’d sit at his locker and glumly tap his bat against the clubhouse carpet. It’s not like he was an introvert. He had worn five different major-league uniforms before putting on a Giants jersey for the first time. He was accustomed to shaking new hands. But sprinting out of the blocks and receiving the baton exchange are two different skills. Joining a new group of players in midsummer — understanding a new role, feeling out new teammates, learning new routines, moving a family to a different city, sensing that everything you do has judgment attached to it — can be distracting and daunting and exhausting if you’re experiencing it for the first time.
Scutaro adjusted. He hit .362 to help the Giants win the NL West, he hit .500 while winning MVP honors in the NL Championship Series and he became a key contributor while drinking in a World Series title. But that initial transition? It wasn’t easy.
Last summer, left fielder Joc Pederson got traded for the first time in his career. The Chicago Cubs shipped him to an Atlanta Braves clubhouse that was swimming against the current at .500 and had lost its best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., to a season-ending knee injury.
Pederson was at a career crossroads of his own. He was playing for a contract he might never get. He was hoping for an everyday opportunity — including starts against left-handed pitchers — he might never receive. He signed what he hoped would be a pillow contract with the Cubs and instead endured a season of tossing and turning. Then he got postmarked in Atlanta.
He did not sit silently at his locker, tapping a bat against the carpet.
“Someone always told me, ‘Don’t change for other people because they’re definitely not going to change for you,’” said Pederson, upon his return to Atlanta on Monday. “Just be yourself and if they like you, they like you. Doesn’t mean it’s OK to be an asshole. Just (have) confidence in being yourself because of who you are, I guess, and not being a fake person to impress anyone.”
Pederson joined a new group of players last summer and before he knew who they were, he had the temerity to let them know who they could be. He brought a loose and free energy to the room, got the Braves to believe in themselves and, when he whimsically decided to add a string of pearls to his gameday look, he started a phenomenon. In a region where gender norms are often durable and now so often politicized, Pederson inspired truck drivers from Newnan and construction workers from Decatur to ask their mother or sister or daughter if they could borrow their pearls.
Pederson made such an impact on the Braves and their fans that their World Series ring, in addition to its rubies and dozens of shimmering diamonds, contains a pearl on one side. It also bears an inscription that Pederson inspired: “WE ARE THOSE—-” (Presumably, adding “M*****F***ers” was a space issue.)
Pederson, now wearing a Giants uniform after signing a one-year contract following last offseason’s lockout, received his ring prior to Monday’s series opener at Truist Park in front of an applauding and appreciative crowd. His former Braves teammates, who played with him for just three months yet are bonded to him for life because of what they accomplished together, could not play it straight. Braves pitcher Ian Anderson presented him with the box. When Pederson opened it, there was nothing inside. Relief pitcher Luke Jackson laughed as he reached into a pocket and handed Pederson the glittering ring. Pederson admired it for a few moments, posed for the crowd, then without a second’s hesitation, handed the priceless piece of jewelry to his 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Poppy. She scampered along the grass in foul ground to the dirt track and into the arms of her mother, Kelsey, and excitedly presented her with the prize. It was the ultimate show-and-tell moment.
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This is how you know that Pederson wasn’t manufacturing a fake persona last year: Monday night marked the first time all season that he wore a strand of pearls around his neck. What happened last year wasn’t a personal gimmick or a way to sell fast food or create a marketing opportunity or bring attention to himself.
“This is my first day wearing them,” said Pederson, who had to acquire a new strand from the same jeweler because the original is in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “It just felt right to wear them. The whole story of why I started wearing them is because it just kind of felt right and Atlanta and the Braves took it to another level. So I didn’t want to wear them till I was here.”
“It was Joc being Joc,” Braves reliever Will Smith said. “He made us bust out of our shell and truly believe in ourselves that we could be the best in the world and win the World Series. He carried that attitude from the day he got here to the last game of the World Series.”
Some people are genuine. Some are eccentric. Pederson was both.
“That’s the thing: When we talk about Joc being Joc, he’s not doing it for attention,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Somehow people gravitate toward the fun stuff he does. He’s not doing it so eyes will be on him. He does it because he’s trying to keep everyone loose and together at the same time.”
The Braves scored a walk-off victory Monday night and Pederson found himself in the wrong dugout to participate in the dogpile. Braves left-hander Max Fried was brilliant. So was Giants right-hander Logan Webb. The night had a Game 1 postseason feel of two clubs whose mutual aspirations might lead them on a collision course in October. Orlando Arcia’s single off Camilo Doval sent the Braves to a 2-1 victory.
The Giants are running into the Braves at the wrong time. The Braves are 16-2 in June. They might have a deeper and stronger roster than any point in last season’s run to the World Series title. They sure do seem to have a more potent offense than the Giants. Their .440 slugging percentage and their 101 home runs both rank second in the major leagues. The Giants (.400) rank 11th in slugging and (78) 10th in home runs.
The Braves also rank second with 130 doubles while the Giants are 18th with 104. The Braves have five players — Austin Riley, Travis d’Arnaud, Dansby Swanson, Matt Olson and Acuña — with a slugging percentage over .450. The Giants have just two players who meet that criteria. Pederson is one, and he was on the bench Monday because he’s still being used as a platoon player. The other, Luis González, was a non-roster player this spring.
Yet for all the ways the Braves appear to outclass the Giants in terms of slugging potential, the overall offensive difference between the two clubs is negligible. The Giants rank sixth in the majors with 4.86 runs per game. The Braves rank seventh with 4.73. The Braves rank ninth in the majors with 105 OPS+. The Giants hang right with them. Their 103 OPS+ ranks 11th.
What accounts for this apparent incongruence? The Giants are second in the majors in walks with 249 while the Braves are 17th with 207. As threatening as power potential might be, home runs can follow unpredictable weather patterns. Walk rates tend to stabilize quickly. In other words, the Giants have an offense that is less flashy but also less prone to the wobbles of hot and cold streaks. That’s probably a good omen for their ability to continue to score runs. But it’s not the most hopeful or reinforcing thought when you face a slugging team like the Braves when they’re in the midst of a hot streak.
“There’s no outs in their lineup,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “There’s no breather. They showed that. They have a steady rotation and one of the better mix-and-match bullpens. There’s no reason this team isn’t one of the top five in baseball.”
There’s no reason the Giants cannot think of themselves in the same light. Their rotation is fourth in the majors in Wins Above Average despite missing two-thirds of it for major chunks of the season, and now they’re primed to be at full strength with Anthony DeSclafani’s planned activation to start Tuesday night. Their lineup continues to function even if it doesn’t impress. They have their issues. Tommy La Stella wasn’t signed so he can DH against a left-hander, as he did Monday night. Their defensive liabilities will show up at times. They don’t have any left fielders who could’ve made the pair of sprinting catches that Braves left fielder Adam Duvall made Monday.
But every team will question itself. Every team will endure a fallow point and a crisis of confidence. Those are the times when it is most productive to have someone with a bleached blond mohawk, or a string of pearls, or the boldness to convince a group of players that they “are those —-”
“I love it here, too,” Pederson said of the Giants. “This is a really special spot. It’s a super safe, winning environment that I want to be a part of.”
Pederson didn’t start Monday night. The Giants had him spring-loaded on the bench, along with Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, ready to deploy once they got Fried out of the game. Instead, Fried was dominant through seven innings. When the Giants finally chased him in the eighth with a bunt single, a bloop and a walk to load the bases with no outs, Braves manager Brian Snitker didn’t step into the snare. He brought in another lefty, Will Smith, and gave up the platoon advantage in order to keep the Giants’ left-handed options in the dugout. The move had its drawbacks — Austin Slater lined a tying single against Smith — but Wilmer Flores struck out while uncharacteristically chasing a pitch out of the zone and the Braves executed on defense when Mike Yastrzemski threaded a tricky ground out down the first base line.
The result was a rally that tied the game but also minimized what the Giants might achieve. They ended up burning Belt, Pederson and Crawford against Kenley Jansen in the ninth and didn’t get a run out of it, although Pederson, who received such a sustained ovation that he had to step out of the box to doff his helmet, punched a single and daringly went from first to third on González’s hit before the Giants stranded both runners in scoring position.
“We were one excellent at-bat away from winning this game,” Kapler said.
It was the kind of high-leverage game that compelled both managers to use their closers in non-save situations. It barely worked for the Braves when Jansen struck out Crawford to end the ninth. It didn’t work out for the Giants, who sent Doval to the mound in the bottom of the inning. A leadoff walk and two singles allowed the Braves to storm the field in celebration.
“They’re no joke,” Webb said. “They might have gotten even better. They’re a really good team and it had that playoff feel, that’s for sure.”
Of course it did. For the first time all season, hundreds of fans in the stands, more men than women, wore pearls to the ballpark.
Pederson had to smile when he spoke of the hospitality he received here last season, how the ushers called him over during batting practice just to introduce themselves and tell him how happy they were to have him there, and how the security guards and stadium workers welcomed him back on Monday like he was a family member returning for the holidays.
Pederson walked into the ballpark Monday with DeSclafani, reliever Jake McGee, video coach Fernando Perez and a few others. They witnessed the parade of greetings and well wishes that he received.
“You were here for two months, dude,” one of the Giants players said to him. “What’s the deal?”
“I don’t know,” Pederson replied. “It’s a special spot.”
(Top pic: Dale Zanine/USA Today)