Belt shows no rust, homers in return to lineup

June 16th, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO -- It took longer than expected, but the Giants finally got their Captain back on Tuesday, when Brandon Belt was activated off the injured list after missing 23 games with right knee inflammation.

Belt saw only one pitch in his first game since May 18, trotting to first base after being hit on his left foot during an eighth-inning pinch-hit appearance. The 34-year-old veteran saw more substantial action after returning to the Giants’ starting lineup on Wednesday afternoon, going 1-for-3 with a home run and a walk in a 3-2 loss to the Royals at Oracle Park.

Belt, who started at designated hitter and batted fifth, deposited a misplaced fastball from Jonathan Heasley into the Royals’ bullpen in right-center field for his fifth home run of the year, igniting a two-run rally that tied the game, 2-2, in the fourth.

“I think I heard a couple of comments after that home run, how challenging it is to just step in the batter’s box and be a good offensive player immediately,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We saw him get on base and act like no time has passed since the last time he stood in the batter’s box. It’s a testament to how much confidence he has. I think more players can do it physically, and fewer players can do it mentally.”

It wasn’t enough to support another terrific effort by the Giants’ bullpen, though, as the Royals capitalized on a two-out error by shortstop Brandon Crawford to score two unearned runs in the first inning and went ahead, 3-2, on Whit Merrifield’s sacrifice fly in the eighth. The defeat snapped San Francisco’s five-game win streak and ended a 6-3 homestand against the Rockies, Dodgers and Royals.

While their offense ranks fifth in the Majors with 304 runs, the Giants have struggled to string together periods of sustained offensive performance this season, with their lineup often oscillating between hot and cold stretches. Kapler has attributed that inconsistency to injuries, which makes Belt’s return all the more important. Belt has a .765 OPS over 28 games this year, but he has shown the ability to carry the lineup when he’s swinging the bat well.

“It was a jolt today just to see him in the dugout and taking down the at-bats,” Kapler said. “That’s a big boost of confidence.”

The Giants are planning to ease Belt back into action after his extended layoff, especially since they didn’t have him go through a rehab assignment before activating him off the IL. Tommy La Stella started at first base on Wednesday, though Belt is expected to eventually resume playing defense and gradually work up to playing a full nine innings.

Belt, who also missed time after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this season, said he’s simply happy to be back and contributing for the Giants, who have gone 18-10 with their self-proclaimed team captain on the field and 17-17 when he has been sidelined this year.

“It’s not fun to sit out and watch your teammates go out there and battle it out every day,” Belt said. “Especially through times when maybe you’re struggling a little bit and there’s nothing you can really do to help. It’s just nice to get back out there.”

Belt had his troublesome right knee drained twice last month, though he was initially hopeful that he would be able to return after spending minimal time on the IL. But the recovery process ended up lasting nearly a month, as the Giants wanted Belt to focus on building up strength in his quad to help him avoid more knee issues moving forward. He finally showed enough progress this week to convince the Giants that he was ready to go.

“I knew there was an imminent return,” Belt said. “It really just kind of flips a switch in your brain sometimes when you know you’re coming back. You kind of get in that mode where you get excited and you get the adrenaline pumping a little bit. There was a time that it was pretty tough for me mentally because there was no set timetable, and I didn’t know when I was going to be back. That was the tough part. But the last few days, I turned the corner physically, and I just knew I was going to be back soon.”

The Giants are slated to receive another boost to their lineup soon, as outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. is on track to begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Sacramento this weekend. Wade has appeared in only 10 games this year, but he emerged as San Francisco’s breakout hitter in 2021 and can wear down pitchers by grinding out at-bats, a quality he shares with Belt.

“This is what you visualize,” Kapler said. “It’s not a full roster, but we’re getting close, and so that feels good.”