By: Jake Kucheck
If there is any such thing as a sure thing in baseball, and there very likely is not, it is the expectation of victory when a matchup includes a bona fide ace going up against a starting pitcher who is barely qualified for a spot in a rotation. As such, Madison Bumgarner was considered a heavy favorite heading into Monday’s tangle with the Pittsburgh Pirates Jeff Locke. While Bumgarner didn’t disappoint, the Giants fell 1-0 on the unlikeliest of run production- an Erik Kratz home run that was, for a time, nestled in Angel Pagan’s glove for a brief time before Pagan let go into the left field stands. If you’re not immediately familiar with how unlikely of an event that is, Erik Kratz has been in the major leagues since 2010 and has hit exactly 24 home runs. It is unlikely enough that an 8-hole backup catcher would take anyone deep, let alone Bumgarner, let alone have that produce the only run of the game, especially with Bumgarner’s penchant for taking matters into his own hands in games where the Giants offense sputters. Be that as it may, the Giants let themselves down in a very winnable game on Monday night.
The Giants cannot, however, be accused of letting this lack of run production and general frustration affect their performance in game 2 on Tuesday. With Ace 1-A Johnny Cueto on the hill taking on another fringy rotation piece in Wilfredo Boscan, the Giants bats woke up in a big way. After a remarkable 12 pitch plate appearance resulting in a bases loaded walk for Brandon Crawford putting the Giants ahead with the first run of the game, Pagan delivered in earnest with a grand slam on the first pitch of the next at bat. From there, the Giants did not look back, eventually finishing with 15 runs on 22 hits and helping Cueto cruise to his 11th win of the season. I’m not sure how many times a team has scored 15 runs the day after being shut out 1-0, but I would have to imagine it is somewhat rare.
The most impressive game of all, though, may have come in what would understandably be a letdown game. Jeff Samardzija, who has been alternating between brilliance and inefficiency all season, made Wednesday’s appearance one to forget, while allowing the bullpen to get quite a bit of work. Lasting only three innings, and giving up a dinger in each of those innings, Samardzija put the Giants in a 6-1 hole by the time he turned things over to the bullpen. In weird, resounding, #EvenYear Giant fashion, the bats came roaring back, with a 6th inning rally culminating in a Joe Panik double to take a decisive 7-6 lead. The bullpen really picked up Samardzija, using 5 arms to scatter 4 hits and walking none over 6 innings of work.
While the Giants had to be elated to come away with a 2-1 series lead after the way things had gone in games 1 and 3, the deck was once again stacked against the Orange and Black with swingman Albert Suarez taking the hill in game 4 of the series. For this forgettable day game in June, the Giants trotted out a lineup that looked more appropriate for a mid-March split squad game than a division leader in June. Here’s that lineup:
I’ll forgive you if, even as a Giants fan, you don’t know that the Williamson hitting 3rd is Mac, the Pena hitting 6th is Ramiro, and that the A. Suarez pitching this morning is in fact Albert, not Andrew, the prospect of a much higher pedigree with whom even a Giants fan would be more likely to be familiar. This was, in short, not a lineup designed to win, exactly. It was a lineup designed to give our everyday Brandons (Belt, Crawford) some much deserved rest, while substituting speedy hispanic outfielders for muscle bound caucasian ones. It was a weird lineup. And, it was a lineup that somehow won both the game and the series for the Giants. Because, well, #EvenYears.
Panik again proved to be clutch, delivering a bases loaded triple that started the scoring for the Giants and himself scoring what would eventually be the decisive run when 3rd hitter Mac Williamson knocked him home in the next at bat. Williamson shined in his unfamiliar lineup post, tacking on a 431 ft blast to center to add an insurance run to lead off the 6th and finishing the day 3 for 4 with 2 RBI. The bullpen continued its dominance, this time allowing only 1 hit in 4 innings of work, with Hunter Strickland, Cody Gearrin and Santiago Casilla all pitching on consecutive days.
Next up for the Giants is a home series against the Phillies, giving Bumgarner a chance to avenge his 1-0 loss on Monday, and Cueto a chance to keep pace with Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta for the league lead in pitcher wins.