Alfonzo's spring finally under way
Hobbled by oblique strain, catcher makes first start
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Eliezer Alfonzo sprang from the Giants dugout on Tuesday night and ran more than halfway to medium-deep right field, catcher's gear and all, to begin his pregame warmup with starting pitcher Noah Lowry.This was just an exhibition game, but Alfonzo still couldn't contain his zeal. For most of Spring Training, Alfonzo has had to suppress his characteristic enthusiasm. A strained left oblique muscle limited his activity in workouts. Tuesday marked his first start in Cactus League play, following a stint off the bench on Monday.
"He's behind," said manager Bruce Bochy, who plans to play Alfonzo at least every other day during the rest of the exhibition season.Getting Alfonzo back into shape is essential for the Giants. Not only do they have no strong alternatives to back up No. 1 catcher Bengie Molina, but they also would welcome a repeat of 2006 from Alfonzo, who ended 10 seasons in the Minor Leagues by hitting .266 with 12 home runs and 39 RBIs in 87 games. "Here's a guy who really came out of nowhere," Bochy said. "He'll be perfect in the backup role." In some respects, Alfonzo's status has slipped. He essentially became a regular last season after Mike Matheny was struck by a foul tip on May 31, prompting a career-ending case of post-concussion syndrome. But mostly, Alfonzo remains a work in progress. He knows that he can learn much from Molina, the eight-year veteran who the Giants signed to a three-year contract. He's aware that he's still likely to play at least 40-60 games, giving him ample opportunity to contribute -- particularly on offense. Alfonzo hit .296 with runners in scoring position last season, including .314 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Those statistics reflect the most remarkable aspect of Alfonzo's performance. Despite spending his professional life as a Minor League journeyman, he rarely looked overmatched at the plate when he reached the Majors. In his big-league debut on June 3, he lined a two-run homer off the New York Mets' Orlando Hernandez. He also endeared himself to AT&T Park fans by legging out every hit at full speed, always looking to take the extra base.
"What I put in my mind is that I can do the job," Alfonzo said, explaining his confidence. "Sometimes when a pitcher would get me out, I'd say, 'OK, I know what you're doing now.' The next at-bat, he's in trouble for sure."Alfonzo occasionally found trouble on defense, displaying shortcomings that seemed all the more glaring when juxtaposed with the excellence of Matheny, a four-time Gold Glove winner. He looked very much like a rookie as he'd miss signs, struggle with technique or struggle to handle pitchers consistently. To Alfonzo's credit, he addressed his weaknesses during the season's second half and into the offseason by playing for Caribes de Oriente in the Venezuelan Winter League. As unpolished as Alfonzo was, he still collaborated on Jason Schmidt's franchise-record 16-strikeout game on June 6 against Florida, both of Matt Morris' complete games and Matt Cain's eight-inning one-hitter on June 19 against the Los Angeles Angels. Alfonzo's currently continuing his education in blocking pitches and executing footwork by working with bullpen catcher Bill Hayes. Alfonzo also intends to absorb as much knowledge as possible from the vastly more experienced Molina.
"I'll try to watch what Bengie does," Molina said, "focus on what he does with the pitchers and bring that to the field, too."Said Bochy, a former backup catcher, "It's the little things in this game that are important. He has to realize that." Now Alfonzo's dealing with a different reality. He still must be careful with his oblique, although he's mostly healed. "I got a little nervous, going to attack the ball," he said, recalling Monday's exhibition debut. "I have to swing more with my hands." But as Alfonzo showed with Tuesday's pregame jaunt, sometimes he can't help himself.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.