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Back in action: Panik feeling great in spring

Giants second baseman learned from frustrating injury last season
MLB.com @sfgiantsbeat

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- You can see it in the bounce in Joe Panik's step, with the exuberant pivots he makes at second base. He's healthy again, and he's reveling in it.

The lower back inflammation that prematurely ended Panik's 2015 season has vanished, leaving the second baseman noticeably happier on the field and in the clubhouse. And who wouldn't feel that way?

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- You can see it in the bounce in Joe Panik's step, with the exuberant pivots he makes at second base. He's healthy again, and he's reveling in it.

The lower back inflammation that prematurely ended Panik's 2015 season has vanished, leaving the second baseman noticeably happier on the field and in the clubhouse. And who wouldn't feel that way?

"Just being able to get back out on the field again, put on the spikes and get out there with the guys again is a good feeling," he said Wednesday. "Being on the disabled list last year, the way everything happened, was a different experience for me. I'm learning not to take the game for granted. Because anything can happen at any time; it doesn't matter how old or how young you are, things can happen."

Said shortstop Brandon Crawford, Panik's double-play partner, "He's got to be happy. He hasn't been on the field since Texas [the site of his injury], playing again with us. So he feels good and it's pretty evident in his emotions."

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Panik acknowledged that he was noticeably gloomy while hanging around the club during the final two months of last season, when he was mostly sidelined. As the San Jose Mercury News reported this week, a spondylolysis, or stress fracture, of the L5 vertebra caused Panik's discomfort. By last December, the fracture had healed.

"I won't say I was a bad teammate, because I was always talking with the guys," Panik said. "But I took it personally because I knew the club that we had last year, if we were healthy, could have made a run in the playoffs."

Instead, the Giants finished 84-78, eight games behind the first-place Dodgers. Injuries disrupted the seasons of several key players, including Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum, Angel Pagan, Matt Cain and Jake Peavy. But Panik's bad back was especially frustrating, since he had begun to flourish.

A National League All-Star in his first full season, Panik hit .312 with an .833 OPS in 100 games. His season essentially ended Aug. 1, when he reported discomfort after a typical performance -- 2-for-5 with two runs scored and an RBI at Texas. Panik tried to return in September, but was too wracked by pain after a three-game series Sept. 7-9 at Arizona to continue.

Video: SF@ARI: Panik dives for grounder, later leaves game

"It was not a fun time for me, just sitting on the bench and watching these guys battle every day and not being able to contribute," Panik recalled.

He missed the competition most of all.

"Especially in August and September," he said. "Those are the months your body's physically tired and that's when the true competitors really show up. That's when it really comes out. That's when everything's magnified. To sit back and miss those crunch-time moments -- it was different, difficult, but I learned from it."

Panik received only partial relief when he went home following the season to Hopewell Junction, N.Y., while the Mets made their October surge toward the World Series.

"I guess I was forced to watch it a little more because I have a few friends who are Mets fans," Panik said. "I was constantly reminded, basically, you missed out on this this year. But I was in the middle of my rehab and I was like, 'You know what? Keep pushing hard, because this is where you're going to be in a few years.'"

Tweet from @SFGiants: Good to see you, #Crawnik. #SFGSpring pic.twitter.com/SWJ2r9xoSX

After being cleared to participate in baseball-related activities in mid-December, Panik and his fiancee, Brittany Pinto, went on a European vacation. The thought of Panik's back holding up through a transatlantic flight and quaint strolls on unforgiving cobblestoned streets might have prompted concern, at the very least. But, said Panik, "It worked out. Everything was good."

He obviously continues to feel that way.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

San Francisco Giants, Joe Panik