Crawford, Giants to extend streaks that go beyond Opening Day

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NEW YORK -- When Brandon Crawford takes the field Thursday at Yankee Stadium, he'll join Willie Mays and Barry Bonds as the only Giants to make 12 consecutive Opening Day starts at the same position. If Blake Sabol starts in left field as expected, he'll be the franchise's 17th different Opening Day left fielder in the last 17 years.

Both streaks are impressive, albeit in very different ways, and both are incredibly difficult to pull off. But for Crawford and Giants left fielders, this goes much, much deeper.

Crawford has started at shortstop for his childhood team every year since 2012, but he's not just there for the ceremonies. He is the most durable shortstop of his generation and has been an everyday player since his debut, with so few IL stints he can count them on one hand.

When it comes to the player standing directly behind him, though, the Giants have, uhh, not been quite that steady.

Mix some poor drafting and player development with dashes of flukiness, bad luck, the usual array of injuries and the fact that two different regimes have viewed the position as somewhere you can plant just about anybody, and you have a remarkable list. Crawford has played 1,561 games for the Giants and had a whopping 77 different players stand behind him in left field.

The list includes just about every single type of professional hitter. It is so all-encompassing, so bizarre, that it even includes a pitcher. 

In the 12th inning of a September game in 2016, Crawford watched as reliever Cory Gearrin recorded an out and then jogged past him to the outfield, where he asked Hunter Pence and Denard Span, "Where do I go?"

Pence, of course, is on the list, but Span never made it. He's one of the few who didn't, apparently.

The list includes everything from spring training standouts (Chris Marrero) to MLB playoff heroes (Travis Ishikawa, Ryan Theriot). There are minor leaguers who made their long-awaited debuts (Heliot Ramos, most recently) and a guy who waited 1,100 games to get a cup of coffee (Jason Krizan). 

Every angle of the Belt Wars (Brandon Belt, Brett Pill, Aubrey Huff) is covered. There's a star who was suspended (Melky Cabrera) and his very capable replacement (Gregor Blanco). There's Farhan Zaidi's first move (Mike Gerber), his biggest move (Kris Bryant) and his most notorious moves (Connor Joe, Michael Reed).

There's a Gorkys (Hernandez) and a (Cole) Gillespie, although not a (Conor) Gillaspie. There's a Skye (Bolt), a (Yermin) Mercedes and a Yaz (Mike Yastrzemski).

The list doesn't quite go from A (Nori Aoki, Tyler Austin, Abiatel Avelino) to Z, but if you count Xavier Nady, it gets close. 

"You probably just get used to it, I guess," Crawford, the longest-tenured Giant, said recently. "There have been a lot of different reasons why there have been that many guys, whether it's injuries, or a worse defender switching it up with a better defender. And then obviously there are times where there was just not one guy holding it down. I guess you just get used to seeing a bunch of different guys out there."

The irony of all this is that Crawford grew up rooting for a team that had Bonds in left field for every opener but one from 1993 through 2007. But since that final year, the Giants have been unable to find a consistent fit. 

This spring, it looked like a solution finally had been found. Mitch Haniger was tracking to start in left field, and with two more years on his deal, he had a chance to end the streak. But Haniger strained his oblique in camp and will miss the start of the year, putting Sabol in line for the assignment. 

If Sabol does start Thursday, the Giants will have the second-longest such streak in MLB history, matching the San Diego Padres, who used 17 different left fielders in 17 years before Jurickson Profar doubled up the last two seasons. The record, should the Giants choose to chase it, is 19 different starters in 19 years, set by the Baltimore Orioles franchise from the 1930s to 1950s. 

The Giants' Opening Day streak started when Dave Roberts replaced Bonds in 2008, but Bruce Bochy mostly had stability in his lineups in the ensuing seasons and at times had very strong defenders in left. He also viewed it as a place he could hide sluggers or guys who didn't have anywhere else to fit in, and he wasn't wrong, particularly in the postseason. Left fielder Pat Burrell helped the Giants win one title and Michael Morse and Ishikawa were instrumental in another run.

Since Zaidi took over in 2018, the pace has accelerated. There were 14 different left fielders behind Crawford in 2019, nine in just 60 games in 2020, 11 in 2021, and an astounding 16 last season. 

If Sabol is the choice Thursday, he would be a potential player development success story for the front office, but those have been few and far between in left field for two different heads of baseball operations. Giants officials gently push back on the notion that they haven't drafted an All-Star outfielder in decades, noting that Bryan Reynolds and Adam Duvall started to develop in their organization before being dealt elsewhere. But there have been plenty of homegrown outfielders to reach that patch of left field grass at Oracle Park and fail to stick.

The list of left fielders who have played behind Crawford includes Jarrett Parker, Chris Dominguez, Mac Williamson, Roger Kieschnick, Francisco Peguero, Juan Perez and Chris Shaw. Austin Slater is an outlier in terms of longevity, although he has seen more time in center and right. 

"There have been a handful of guys where, whether it's a good spring that they had and you're thinking 'This guy is going to be really good for us,' or it's a hot stretch in the middle of the year ..." Crawford said. "But, I don't know. It's just kind of a weird phenomenon."

In Crawford, Buster Posey and Belt, the Giants did find franchise-altering stability on the dirt, and at times those three watched fellow infielders try to fill the gap in left. Crawford saw that in play pretty much right away. In his first career three-hit game, the Giants had 31-year-old veteran Bill Hall in left field.

Manny Burriss, Alen Hanson, Aaron Hill, Eduardo Nuñez, Kelby Tomlinson, Yangervis Solarte and Thairo Estrada are among the many double-play partners who also lined up behind Crawford at one point, and they always get the same piece of advice from a four-time Gold Glove Award winner, who regularly ranges deep into the outfield to track pop-ups and has had a handful of left fielders get a little too close for comfort or even make contact. 

"I'm not going to call it, I'm going to go for everything but I won't be calling it," he tells them. "I'll be waiting for you to call me off. That's usually my one piece of advice for left fielders, because other than that I don't know much about outfield play. Just basically know that I will be out there, so make sure that you call me off if you want it."

If Sabol hasn't gotten that advice yet, he soon will, but he won't be the first catcher to hear it. The list of 77 players includes Stephen Vogt, who made six appearances in left in 2019. 

Thus far, there only has been one pitcher, although both Bochy and Gabe Kapler have at times come close to putting guys like Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo and Kevin Gausman out on the grass in an emergency. Bochy finally did it on Sept. 9, 2016. 

Gearrin faced one batter in the 12th before replacing Angel Pagan in the outfield, with left-hander Javier Lopez coming in to pitch to a left-handed hitter. Gearrin then returned to the mound to finish off the game against right-handed hitters. He later joked he was sad he didn't get to try a diving catch. 

"Pitchers shag every day," Gearrin said that night, "And you hope to make one of those plays."

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Seven years later, Crawford smiled and said he was probably thinking "what are we doing" when he saw it all unfold.

"But at the same time, Boch didn't make many bad moves," he added. "So you see something like that and you're like, 'I'm not sure what we're doing here, but I trust him.' "

It all worked out and Gearrin joined a fascinating list, one that might approach triple-digits if Crawford plays a couple more seasons. Perhaps the funniest part of it all is that, while Crawford has had 77 different teammates play behind him in left field, he never has lined up anywhere but shortstop in the big leagues. He doesn't even know if he has played an inning of left field in his entire life.

"I don't think so," he said. "Maybe in tee-ball when you would switch all the way around the field?"

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