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Giants’ Bruce Bochy is back in World Series, but still under the radar

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DETROIT — When the Detroit Tigers hired Jim Leyland as their manager in the fall of 2005, it was widely accepted throughout baseball that they had lured one of the sport’s best minds back from retirement. When the Tigers reached the 2006 World Series to face the St. Louis Cardinals, vats of ink were spilled on the two managers, Leyland and Tony La Russa, tomes written about their attributes, their accomplishments, their acumen.

In the dugout across from Leyland on Saturday night at Comerica Park, managing his team in Game 3 of the World Series, will be someone whose name rarely comes up in such discussions. Bruce Bochy has been a major league manager for 18 consecutive years, the longest current streak in baseball. He has won six division titles, including four of the five in San Diego Padres’ history. He has won three National League pennants, and if the San Francisco Giants — who lead Detroit two games to none — close out the Tigers, he will join Terry Francona, newly hired with Cleveland, as the only active managers with two World Series titles.

“I mean, wow,” Giants left-hander Barry Zito said. “He gets the credit. He gets a lot of credit. But I think he’s due even more.”

Credit is not Bochy’s thing. But the man with one of the largest craniums the sport has ever seen — his hat size, when he played as a backup catcher, was upwards of 8 — doesn’t always get credit for the brain inside. Perhaps it’s because of the way he speaks, a low grumble that sounds as if he’s gargling a dirt road. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t rant much. Perhaps it’s because he has spent his entire career on the West Coast, with late-night games in markets that don’t resonate as much back east.

But even within his own sphere, Bochy hasn’t always been appreciated. The Padres won back-to-back division titles in 2005 and ’06, and yet the franchise Bochy once played for allowed and even encouraged him to walk that offseason. The Giants, who frequently battled Bochy’s Padres, watched Felipe Alou retire after 2006, and were sitting there, waiting and smiling.

“I was kind of shocked that he was available,” Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said. “We saw before he got here, they won a lot of times with less payroll and less talent.”

Bochy, 57, was hired as the Padres’ manager when he was all of 39. His second season, they won the division. His fourth, 1998, they went to the World Series. He grew to be, like Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn, part of the fabric of the franchise and the city.

But as calm as Bochy seems — he will get ejected, but not in a dirt-kicking fashion — he says comfort was never part of his issue in San Diego. He believes, and the Giants back this up, that even as Leyland, La Russa and even contemporaries such as Lou Piniella receive credit for being the game’s deep thinkers, Bochy has worked at his craft.

“Hopefully, you work at it and you get better with each year,” Bochy said. “It’s like a player; I don’t think you ever arrive as a player. I don’t think you ever do as a manager. You keep trying to get better and work on things, whether it’s in-game strategy or managing your players or even dealing with the media or front office — whatever it is.”

The players notice, too. Bochy enjoys using his bullpen and with three left-handers this postseason he has ample opportunity to play with matchups. “Bruce mixes and matches as good as anybody,” Leyland said.

This was a La Russa staple, too, double-switching, even in an earlier inning, to make sure he got the pitcher he wanted facing the batter he preferred. This season, with closer Brian Wilson out with elbow surgery, Bochy fiddled even more.

“Sometimes he gets a little crazy,” right-hander Matt Cain said. “Sometimes he can do things we might not agree with.”

Pressed, though, Cain brought only praise. “He handles everyone great,” he said. Part of that: Even if he’s tinkering, he tells his players why.

“I think there needs to be a trust there,” Bochy said. “I think they need to know that you’re behind them, and there’s different ways to do it. Sometimes you’re not going to agree, but as long as you do it in the right way and handle things right. . . . I think it’s something that’s critical for the player and makes him a better player when he has trust from his manager and vice versa.”

Bochy has had his share of delicate dilemmas, even as the Giants have rolled to NL West championships two of the past three years. In 2010, he had to tell Zito, a former Cy Young winner who signed a $126 million deal that was a record for a pitcher, that he would not be on the postseason roster — three times. Once for the division series, once for the NL Championship Series and once for the World Series.

“He’s always handled me very professional,” Zito said. “He’s always communicated, and sometimes the truth was not what I wanted to hear, but it was the truth. And other times he’s said things that felt good to me. He’s always been just a great guy personally and a great manager from a kind of player’s perspective.”

Earlier this month, Bochy had to tell right-hander Tim Lincecum, who won a pair of Cy Young Awards for the Giants, that he would begin the playoffs in the bullpen. After Lincecum started and lost Game 4 of the NLCS, Bochy had to tell him that he would be a reliever again for the World Series.

“He just told me,” Lincecum said. “There wasn’t much to it. He was just honest and straightforward about it.”

Those two decisions and discussions that followed came at the end of a season in which Bochy had to figure out how to finish off games in Wilson’s absence. He had to juggle his lineup when the Giants got off to a sluggish offensive start. He had to fiddle with it further when all-star outfielder Melky Cabrera was suspended in August for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy. Yet if Bochy ever raised that low grumble, few knew.

“He’s got a great demeanor, having the players be the focal point,” Sabean said. “He really makes them responsible. He keeps everybody involved in the process, and if that takes making tough decisions, he explains why. If that takes defining roles, he defines them.”

Bochy’s role with this team, in this series: Sit back, watch it all, put his players in position, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.

“He’s a tremendous manager with a tremendous approach,” Leyland said. “I think they know who’s in charge. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

© The Washington Post Company