SF Giants’ Brandon Crawford reflects on career of beloved double-play partner Joe Panik

SAN FRANCISCO — The question put Brandon Crawford in an awkward position. Was Joe Panik his favorite double-play partner he’s teamed up with up the middle?

“It’s hard, when you’re playing with somebody currently,” Crawford stammered, motioning to the locker a few spots to his right. “I really like playing with Thairo (Estrada).”

No other player, however, paired up with Crawford to turn as many double plays or shared as many innings on the middle of the dirt than Panik, the onetime first-round draft pick and 2014 World Series hero who quietly announced his retirement from baseball Thursday evening at 31 years old.

It has been eight years since the precocious prospect broke into the big leagues in June 2014, eventually playing a pivotal role during the Giants’ ride to their third World Series title. Yet, once the news broke Thursday evening, Panik received such an outpouring of support from Giants fans that his name trended on Twitter.

That is where Crawford saw the news late Thursday night. He waited until Friday morning to reach out via text.

“I had kind of heard (in spring training) that he may be thinking about retiring,” Crawford said. “He was a great teammate. Locker neighbor for a lot of our career. Became a really good friend.”

Crawford didn’t spend much time soaking in the highlights — “I was there for all of them,” he said with a grin — but one play kept coming across his timeline. You can probably guess which one: the flip.

In case you’d like a refresh, or just a trip down memory lane: It was the third inning of Game 7 of the World Series in Kansas City, and the Giants were locked in a 2-2 tie with the Royals. The speedy Lorenzo Cain was on first base when Eric Hosmer stepped to the plate, with no outs. Hosmer lined a pitch from Jeremy Affeldt up the middle, and Panik ranged to his right. If the ball gets through, Cain almost certainly advances to third, with the middle of the Royals order due up. Instead, Panik laid out, stretching out the length of his body, nabbing the ball and flipping it with his glove to Crawford, who fired to Brandon Belt for the double play. The Royals wouldn’t score the rest of the way, and a couple innings later, the legend of Madison Bumgarner was born, made possible by the legend-making magic from Panik a few innings earlier.

It was a web gem in the middle of a regular-season win against the Rockies, though, that stuck out most in Crawford’s memory. Locked in a 1-1 tie with the Rockies in 13th inning on May 7, 2016, Panik made a diving snag of grounder from Gerardo Parra (who also recently announced his retirement) and flipped the ball behind his back to Crawford standing on second base for the force out, forever known as the “hook shot” play.

“That was a fun one,” Crawford said. “I think it just got a force out in the middle of a random game in the regular season, but it was still a cool play by him.”

At the end of that season, Panik was named a Gold Glove winner for the only time in his career. His only All-Star appearance came a season prior, alongside Crawford in 2015. By August 2019, Panik’s tenure in San Francisco had come to an end when he was designated for assignment by the new Farhan Zaidi-led regime.

For a player who spent less than six seasons in San Francisco, Panik earned an outsized outpouring of support from Giants fans upon the news of his retirement on Thursday.

Although he was here for only a short period of time, Panik played another memorable role in a key era of Giants history. For a brief period, Panik, Crawford, Belt and Pablo Sandoval teamed up to give the Giants an entirely homegrown infield (along with Buster Posey behind the plate).

“That was awesome,” Crawford said. “That doesn’t happen very often across baseball. I think it’s great that fans loved it, too.”

Panik, of course, had the double play of Hosmer that will live forever in the memories of Giants fans. But he also delivered a game-tying home run against the Cardinals that helped them make it to the World Series and, as a 23-year-old rookie, batted .338 with a .781 OPS in the final two months of the regular season as the Giants clinched a wild-card spot.

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“He helped out a lot through that postseason and the second half of that year once he got called up,” Crawford said. “I think fans always love guys that help win World Series. And he did great after that, too, he just started getting hurt a lot.”

A back injury ended Panik’s All-Star 2015 season prematurely, and he suffered a concussion in 2016 that, according to Crawford, “messed him up a little more than he let on publicly.”

Panik’s time with the Giants ended shortly after San Francisco acquired Mauricio Dubón, who became the team’s second baseman of the future. Less than two weeks since the Giants officially moved on from Dubón by trading him to Houston, Panik quietly announced the end of his career.

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