AT&T PARK — Chris Stratton wasn’t scheduled to throw for the Sacramento River Cats during their trip to Nashville the first weekend of August.
Having just been sent down from the San Francisco Giants after an Aug. 3 start, he was only due to throw one of his normal side sessions.
“It was probably the worst game of catch I’ve ever played in my life before that,” Stratton said. “I was trying to focus on all these different moving parts and trying to lock them in.”
Then, with the help of former Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong — who roves around the minor leagues like a latter-day Bagger Vance — Stratton found a key to his delivery. Since he’s returned to the majors, Stratton has thrown two straight quality starts. His second — an eight-inning, six-strikeout performance — came in the midst of a pennant chase, in a 2-0 win over the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday.
“He’s thrown some really nice games, and you can go back last year and early this year, but I’d have to put that up there,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “That’s one of his best games.”
Stratton — who shut down a team that’s seven games ahead in the standings — set career highs for both innings pitched and pitches thrown in his third outing back from the minor leagues. It’s a far cry from where he was for May and June.
Stratton had gone six or more innings eight times this season, and had started the year 2-1 in his first five outings, averaging over six innings per start with a 2.32 ERA. Over the next two months, he posted a 4.76 ERA, averaging just 5 1/3 innings per start. After a disastrous July start against Colorado, where he allowed eight runs on 11 hits in 5 2/3 innings, he was sent down to Sacramento.
Recalled on July 26, he came out of the bullpen for an inning and a third against Milwaukee. He allowed three earned runs on three hits, and was sent back to the River Cats just over a week later, with a 5.14 ERA.
Vogelsong notably re-invented himself in the middle of his career. After flaming out with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Vogelsong spent three years pitching in Japan, and then returned to be a key part of two of San Francisco’s three World Series teams.
He told Stratton that the two had very similar mechanics, and gave him a cue — stay straight with his shoulders — that had helped him.
“He told me I needed to keep my shoulders in line a little bit longer,” Stratton said. “He was coaching me along with what he does, and helped me stay in a better line. I was staying too rotational and flying open a little too much.”
Having been sent down with the mandate to find his command and spot his offspeed pitches more consistently, Stratton has now allowed just two earned runs in his last 14 1/3 innings, with only 11 hits against him. Only one Giants pitcher had gone eight innings this season — Madison Bumgarner, three times — before Stratton turned the trick on Monday, throwing a career-high 117 pitches.
“It’s the first time I’ve been there in a while,” Stratton said.
In his first start back last week, after his adjustment from Vogelsong, Stratton only lasted into the fourth, giving up six earned runs on 10 hits and four walks. Then, he threw 6 1/3 against the New York Mets, striking out four and allowing two runs on six hits.
Against left-hander Patrick Corbin — who one-hit the Giants on April 17 in Arizona — Stratton was more than just effective; he was downright stifling.
“It was the adjustments that we made when Vogey came down and saw me in Nashville,” Stratton said. “He helped me get back in line, helped me stay on everything a lot better.”
Though Stratton ground through an 18-pitch first inning, he made the big pitch when needed. With two men on and one out, he faced Paul Goldschmidt, who had seven hits in 14 career at-bats against Stratton, with three doubles and one home run.
Stratton jammed him with an 0-1 92-mph fastball down and in, broke his bat and induced a soft liner behind second to Chase d’Arnaud.
“He’s hit that pitch before,” Stratton said. “He’s just a great hitter. You’ve got to continue to mix it up with him. Just one of those that got to him right there.”
Using a mix of fastballs (45), curveballs, sliders and changeups — he got eight called strikes on his slider, and five swings and misses at his change — Stratton retired eight of the next 10 men.
“I just remember the changeups away that [Vogelsong] was throwing [in the 2012 World Series],” Stratton said. “The two-seams. He was eating people up with two-seams inside. If I can get his changeup, I’ll be OK.”
Stratton expanded the zone effectively, stealing strikes a good two inches off the plate in the third, dancing around a leadoff single by Jon Jay by getting a force, a strikeout and a soft liner to right center by Goldschmidt, who went 0-for-3 against the San Francisco starter.
The Giants would give Stratton all the run support he would need early on, in the bottom of the second.
After hitting just .179 against lefties in Triple-A this season, Steven Duggar had hit .333 against lefties in 40 big-league at-bats. Still, he had no homers against fellow southpaws — and none at AT&T Park — until the bottom of the second. Duggar victimized Corbin with two outs, clearing his front hip and spinning on a 91-mph fastball at the knees on the inside corner. The liner to right brought home Brandon Crawford to give San Francisco a 2-0 lead.
After that, Corbin retired the next 10 straight, while Stratton retired 17 of the final 18 men he faced, getting some help from Crawford.
Though the Giants shortstop has decidedly cooled off since the All-Star game — he came in to Monday hitting .180 since the break — his glove hasn’t slumped at all. On a David Peralta roller to the left side to lead off the sixth, Crawford — the only man to the left of second in the shift — ranged to his left and threw across the diamond for the out.
One pitch later, Goldschmidt hit a grounder to the hole at short. Crawford ranged to his right, dove and slid on the outfield grass, popped up and got Goldschmidt by the slimmest of margins. Stratton then struck out Daniel Descalso to end the frame.
“He makes plays like that all the time, so it’s nothing new to guys around here. Just trust the defense,” Stratton said.
After the Giants wasted a leadoff double by McCutchen and a follow-up single by Austin Slater in the sixth, Stratton was able to keep momentum in the home dugout. He caught Steven Souza looking at a front-door slider on the inside corner for strike three to end an eight-pitch at-bat, then retired Nick Ahmed on a soft liner to right and caught Alex Avila looking at a fastball just off the inside corner, for a called strike three.
After throwing 102 pitches in seven innings, Stratton didn’t assume he was done as he headed into the dugout.
“If nobody comes and shakes your hand, you’ve got to stay locked in,” he said. “I think Hundo (Nick Hundley) fought for me to go back out.”
He then went out and set Arizona down in order in the eighth, striking out Escobar on five pitches.