Hacker excited for first start

            The Fresno Grizzlies may have to put in a request with the big club to retire No. 51, as the last two players to wear the number in San Francisco have absolutely owned the Pacific Coast League this season.

            Last season, it was Justin Christian who sported No. 51 during his big-league call-up in September. In his return to Fresno this season, Christian has been one of the toughest outs in baseball. Christian entered into play yesterday tops in the PCL with 34 hits, and second in the league with a .420 batting average.

            And, Friday night, while making his first major league start, it was Eric Hacker who wore No. 51. Upon his call-up, Hacker was tied for tops in the PCL with a 4-0 record. It’s the second time in his career the journeyman right-hander has gotten off to a fast start with Fresno. In 2010, he was named the Giants’ minor-league pitcher of the year after leading the PCL in wins, posting an organizational best 16-8 record.

            At the time, the hurler’s mound presence prompted Fresno pitching coach Pat Rice to compare Hacker to one of the all-time greats – one Roger Clemens.     

            “They’re both big, physically gifted pitchers,” Rice said Friday via telephone. “I don’t know if he’s Roger Clemens by any stretch of the imagination, but he has some pretty hard stuff.”

            A tried and true minor-league journeyman, Hacker is in his second turn with the Giants organization. He spent 2011 with the Twins, then resigned with the Giants this offseason. The Giants’ starting rotation is notoriously one of the toughest in all of baseball for a minor-league pitcher to crack. However, when a rainout forced the team to play a doubleheader Monday in New York, the Giants required a spot start on the fly. So, Thursday night, Hacker got the call.  

            “He was trying to be cool. But yeah, he was excited, as anybody would be,” Rice said. “He’s been up there before, but your first start, you have to calm the nerves.”

            Entering into Friday’s 5-3 loss, Hacker was coming off a solid performance April 22 against Mariners Triple-A affiliate Tacoma. While he surrendered three runs over 6 2/3 innings to earn his fourth win of the year, he set the first 12 batters of the game down in order. And, he did so throwing to a catcher Giants fans should remember well – one Eli Whiteside.

            Whiteside – the backup catcher from the 2010 Giants World Championship team – is back in Fresno this year for the first time since 2009, when he established himself in the eyes of the organization as an outstanding team leader.

            “He really took control of the team,” Rice said of Whiteside. “It wasn’t that he hit that great or anything like that. It’s that he took care of things behind the plate…. He’s just a natural leader.”

            In addition to Hacker, there are two players at Fresno who have returned to the Giants organization this season. Left-hander Brian Burres – who was claimed off waivers by the Orioles from the Giants in 2006 – is off to a 1-1 start in four starts. Also, journeyman Todd Linden has returned to the Giants organization for the first time since 2007, after toiling in independent ball and the Japanese league over the past two seasons. Linden, 32, entered into play last night hitting .284 with 17 RBIs.

            Meanwhile, pitching prospect Eric Surkamp – who was expected to be the Giants’ first go-to guy out of the farm system this year – has yet to pitch in a game this season, after the left-hander was diagnosed with a strained left flexor tendon of his pitching elbow in March.

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