DETROIT — Marco Scutaro's teammates called him "Blockbuster" in 2012 because of the massive impact he had after being picked up in a lightly regarded trade. Two years later, another Giants second baseman is having a similar effect at the same point of the season, and this time the Giants didn't even have to trade for him.
Joe Panik's ascent to big league regular was gradual, but there's been nothing measured about the boost he has given a lineup that struggled through June and July. Panik is hitting .389 and slugging .500 since the trade deadline passed July 31 without the Giants adding an infielder, and the lineup has scored 58 runs in seven games since he was moved up to the No. 2 spot. Panik has accounted for eight of them while notching 13 hits in his last 30 at-bats.
"It seems like since he's moved there, it's just made us deeper," said three-hitter Buster Posey. "With him getting on base it gives the three-four-five hitters a lot more opportunities to drive some runs in."
The Giants were saying the same things about Scutaro in 2012, and his red-hot finish led to a three-year contract that was viewed by many as the latest sign the organization was more incapable than most of filling needs through the farm system. The Giants have long disputed that reputation, pointing to homegrown stars like Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Pablo Sandoval, and prospect-based trades that have added the likes of Hunter Pence and Jake Peavy.
The front office now has another piece of evidence to push onto the table: A 23-year-old first-round pick hitting .318 in the middle of a pennant race. How did such a player fly so far under the radar?
"I wasn't the guy who was going to hit for 35 homers," Panik said, smiling. "This is just the kind of ballplayer I am. I don't want to say I'm Steady Eddie, but I'm a guy who is going to do the little things and try to play the right way. I take pride in that."
That's well and good when you're an established veteran, but the young players that rise to the top of prospect lists aren't the ones executing a perfect hit-and-run or working a count. Panik stuck to his approach, though, and followed the same path at every level. He would struggle to adjust at times, but would eventually find his way and post remarkably consistent numbers.
Panik had a .368 on-base percentage, 27 doubles, four triples, seven homers, 10 stolen bases, 58 walks and 54 strikeouts as a 21-year-old shortstop in High A-Ball. The next year he was moved to second base and compiled a .333 OBP, 27 doubles, four triples, four homers, 10 steals, 58 walks and 68 strikeouts in the pitcher-friendly Double-A Eastern League.
Panik, the 29th overall selection in the 2011 draft, was pleased with his progression, but the steady game dropped him off the prospect map. Baseball America listed Panik as the ninth-best Giants prospect this spring. ESPN didn't rank him in the top 10, but an accompanying story mentioning offhand that "Joe Panik remains in the system as a potential utility infielder."
Those close to Panik knew he was capable of much more. There was a desire to be great that burned underneath the firm, unemotional facade. Andrew Susac roomed with Panik in Richmond and Fresno and now has joined him in giving the Giants a late-summer lift. He can see it on Panik's face when he's upset, even if most in the ballpark have no idea.
"He's one of the biggest competitors I've ever met," Susac said. "Joe is that guy who goes 3 for 4 and is pissed that he didn't get that fourth hit."
The emotion has burst through at times over the past month, but the ability to keep it in check has allowed Panik to progress at his own pace, ignoring the expectations that come with being a first-rounder.
"I never thought, 'I have to do this or do that, or be like this or that,'" Panik said. "I understand how it goes. One minute, people love you, and then you struggle and you kind of fall off the radar. All I had to do was keep working hard."
Eventually, that led to the Giants having a standout where a gaping hole once grew larger by the game, unfilled by the likes of Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza and Dan Uggla. Panik plays solid defense at second base, is a smart baserunner and makes outstanding contact. Scutaro made contact a league-high 98 percent of the time when swinging at strikes in 2012. Panik leads this year's Giants at 93.8 percent.
"Marco was a contact guy, line-drive hitter and base-hit guy, and I think Panik is the same type of hitter," manager Bruce Bochy said. "Both can handle the bat and are disciplined at the plate. It allows you to do more things."
Bochy is hopeful Panik, a No. 2 hitter throughout his minor league career, allows him to be creative for years to come. He's not the only one. Scutaro was never a long-term solution and now the Giants are unsure if the 38-year-old will ever play again, but Panik's emergence as a cost-controlled in-house option should allow the Giants to be more aggressive with pending free agent Pablo Sandoval, knowing Panik and Brandon Crawford won't break the bank in the middle of the diamond.
"We've already invested in second base, so it's clearly not a position where you want to make another deposit," assistant general manager Bobby Evans said. "Anytime you're developing your own guys that's what helps put a team together. You're able to go out and add to that, and suddenly you've got a deep lineup."
The Giants all of a sudden have one of the deepest in the league. It turns out this year's "Blockbuster" was waiting in the wings all along.