How Giants' Longoria helped spark Villar's breakout month


SAN DIEGO -- When David Villar won Sunday's home finale with a two-run single to left, Evan Longoria was standing in the on-deck circle. Longoria knew his thumb had been fractured in the top of the inning and that he wouldn't end up swinging the bat if the inning got to him, but manager Gabe Kapler sent him up as a decoy.

Longoria wasn't needed, but he still might have played a part in that game-winning hit. If you ask Villar what has changed during his second stint in the big leagues, there's a good chance you're going to hear him talk about Longoria and a talk the two had during a Sept. 4 game against the Phillies that came just before Villar's breakout road trip.

The rookie infielder started but went 0-for-3 before getting replaced by a pinch-hitter in the eighth. In the dugout, he sat down next to Longoria and asked for an honest assessment of his plate appearances. Longoria told Villar that it looked like he was stuck in between, unsure if he should look for a fastball or a breaking ball. Villar said he was concerned about striking out. Longoria told him to brush it off. 

"He was like, you're a guy that hits homers and doubles and drives in runs, so strikeouts are part of the game," Villar recalled recently. "Yeah, you don't want it to happen, but at the same time, the game has evolved and pitchers are a lot better these days and velocity is up. If you're worried about strikeouts, you're not going to be successful. It just gave me the freedom to just be myself and stop worrying about the strikeouts."

Villar has had a high strikeout rate at every level this season, but he also is currently sitting on 34 homers in Triple-A and the big leagues. He is here to slug, and Longoria reminded him of that. 

Villar was batting just .157 at that point through 26 big league games, but the next day at Dodger Stadium, he hit a homer. Two days later, he hit two more. He played every game on that three-city road trip, going 10-for-26 with four homers and seven RBI.

Villar had a .623 OPS during his first call-up but is at .838 the second time around, and all the way up to .907 since that talk with Longoria. Ironically, the success could make it a bit easier for the Giants to move on from Longoria this offseason, but the 15-year veteran certainly didn't care about that possibility when he helped Villar try and figure out his next steps. As he looked back at that conversation, Longoria said it brought back memories of his first year in San Francisco. 

Longoria was already a three-time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner when the Giants acquired him, but he still felt the weight of taking over a position that for so long had belonged to fan favorite Pablo Sandoval. 

"Sometimes it's really hard. I even had a hard time myself coming here as a veteran guy with Pablo here," Longoria said. "Sometimes it seems like the guys that are in front of you, they can do no wrong, and then you have a little bit of failure and it seems like things kind of turn on you really quickly.

"Sometimes you feel like those opportunities are going to come and go really quickly and that if you fail, you're going to go back down and you're not going to have a chance, especially because we have J.D. (Davis) here, we have myself here, we have (Wilmer Flores) who can play third as well. I think at first he was like, 'Man, if I don't have this immediate success then I'm not going to be out here."

Longoria had met Villar during a rehab assignment and was well aware of his minor league success, including 20 homers last year in Double-A and 27 this year in Triple-A. He said he wanted to convey to Villar that manager Gabe Kapler and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi knew what he was capable of if he played that same style of game. 

"It's not a fluke," Longoria said of Villar's resume. "The numbers, they don't lie."

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Zaidi will look at all those numbers, not just for Villar, but for Longoria as well, and decide what that means for 2023. The Giants must decide if Villar is ready to take over or if he's best served as part of a corner rotation with Davis, Flores, potentially Longoria, and others. 

When it comes to deciding Longoria's fate, it won't only be about numbers, though. The clubhouse lost Buster Posey last offseason and could lose Brandon Belt in the coming months. Kapler talks often about how good teammate behavior is part of the overall package, and if Longoria is back next season, part of it will certainly be because of the leadership and stability he brings. 

A few minutes after Villar's walk-off, Longoria walked into Kapler's office. They knew he had a season-ending injury, but Longoria asked if he could make the flight to San Diego with the rest of the team. "Dude, you have to be in San Diego," Kapler told him.

"Everybody depends on Longo's leadership," Kapler said Monday. "Who he represents to this group is a real guiding light to us. He's just a mentor to people and he's just always accountable and always ready. Look, even as we got into the second half of the season and at times it looked like it was a real long shot to get to the playoffs, he'd come to me and say he was good to come off the bench in some of these games that he wasn't starting.

"I just think that he's done everything right in his career and the end of this season was unfortunate, but I'm still going to remember Longo's season as a good one."

Villar certainly will, as well. His rookie season has turned into a good one, and if that leads to a long career with the Giants, you can bet he'll always tell the story about how he sat down next to Longoria one day and asked for advice.

"That's where it really turned for me," Villar said. "I don't think I'll ever forget it."

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