AT&T PARK — The San Francisco Giants offense has, generously, been flat since the All-Star break. In 20 games, the Giants have scored three runs or fewer 12 times. That’s why, despite scoring a total of 79 runs since the break, with a team ERA of 3.98, San Francisco had lost 12 of its last 20 games headed into Sunday’s series finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The only thing that’s seemingly kept the Giants within some kind of smelling distance of a playoff spot has been its young pitching, but even that has begun to falter, as Andrew Suarez has a 7.43 over his last five starts. Then there’s Dereck Rodriguez, the former outfielder who hadn’t pitched above Triple-A when he was signed as a minor league free agent this offseason.
On Sunday, for the ninth straight start, Rodriguez allowed two runs or fewer while going six or more innings. Backed by timely hitting from Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford, Rodriguez continued to tighten his stranglehold on the NL Rookie of the Year race with a 4-3 win to keep San Francisco six games back of a playoff spot. San Francisco salvaged a split with the Pirates as they head south for a three-game set with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“You look at the numbers, I think without question that he’ll be in that talk and consideration,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “We have a lot of baseball left. He’s doing all he can do, and more than we thought. We knew he’d be pretty good, but he’s even exceeded that.”
Last year, at this time, Rodriguez — drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 draft by the Minnesota Twins as an outfielder — was 5-2 at Double-A Chattanooga, with a 3.64 ERA, in just his fourth year as a pitcher.
While the story with Rodriguez when he was called up at the end of May was his Hall of Fame father Ivan, now, the narrative has shifted, and that’s just fine with the former sixth-round outfielder.
“I’ve been waiting for that my whole life,” Rodriguez said. “To be my own player, I knew it was going to happen when I got called up. Everybody was, ‘Son of Pudge’ and stuff, but I was still happy. Slowly but surely, I’m starting to separate myself from him a little bit more. But, you know, it happens.”
When he Googles his name, a photo of his father appears (“I get people sending me that all the time,” he said), and he still gets texts from the Hall of Fame catcher about what he sees during his outings. Rodriguez, though, is well on his way to making a name for himself, separate from Ivan.
Rodriguez, who allowed one run on two hits with a walk and four strikeouts on Sunday for his sixth win, lowered his ERA to 2.25, tops among major league rookie starters. He would be fifth in among all big league starters if he qualified for the ERA title.
Rodriguez threw 101 pitches in his seven innings of work against the Pirates, riding a fastball that he was able to keep away from barrels, getting 11 called strikes with the fastball, and 14 foul balls, with only nine put in play.
“His poise, his ability to get outs when he doesn’t have his A stuff, he wasn’t as crisp as he has been, but he went seven innings and gave up one run,” catcher Nick Hundley said. “He threw the ball great, competed in a game we really needed to have. He went out there and got it done.”
Rodriguez sat between 90 and 94 with his four-seamer, while sprinkling in 17 changeups (one swinging strike, two called strikes, five fouls, four balls in play) and 19 curveballs (two swinging strikes, two called strikes, only two put in play), despite his curve not being as sharp as it was last Monday.
“I thought my curve wasn’t today how it’s been in the past, but it was still effective,” Rodriguez said. “I was still getting a couple swings there, just giving them a different look.”
The Giants pulled even in the third after a leadoff single by Steven Duggar — on the ninth pitch of his at-bat — and a one-strike triple into right center by Hundley. It was the second triple of his season, but he still has a ways to go to match his career-high of five in 2015 with the Colorado Rockies.
“That was big, especially against a guy like Joe Musgrove,” Hundley said of the Pirates’ starter. “he’s been throwing the ball really well. They’ve got good arms over there, and they’ve added to their bullpen well. It’s a good game for us to win.”
In the fourth, Brandon Crawford — hitting .208 since the All-Star break — laced a one-out double into left. Gorkys Hernandez then singled off of Musgrove’s foot, putting men at the corners for Joe Panik. After Panik’s sac fly brought home Crawford, Steven Duggar sent a roller to the right of the first base bag.
Josh Bell ranged over to field it, and flipped to Musgrove covering first, but Hundley beat him by a hair. As Musgrove stood arguing with first base umpire Chris Conroy, Hernandez alertly dashed to third. A Hundley RBI single brought him around, putting the Giants up, 3-1. Hundley finished 2-for-3 with a pair of RBIs.
“I ran hard to second base, and I turned, looked at the play, and I knew I was going to be safe, but when I saw the pitcher talk to the umpire, I’m thinking, ‘Now’s the time to do it,’ so I did it,” Hernandez said. “We had to be aggressive on the bases. Be aggressive, get to third base, and after that, I scored a run.”
Hernandez’s base running would again come to the fore in the sixth, when, after looking to get hosed by catcher Elias Diaz, he got lucky as shortstop Jordy Mercer dropped the throw. Hernandez then read a Joe Panik frozen rope to center perfectly, scoring to up the tally to 4-1. Panik, like Crawford, had struggled at the plate. Since returning from injury on July 30, he’d hit .200.
Of course, once Rodriguez left, things got a bit dicey, as they did last week, when Will Smith blew his first save of the season by allowing a three-run homer in the ninth.
After Reyes Moronta walked Adam Frazier to lead off the eighth, Evan Longoria couldn’t make a clean transfer after snow cone-ing a grounder by Mercer. Moronta struck out pinch hitter David Freese, and was pulled for Tony Watson.
Watson promptly allowed a two-run, two-out double to Starling Marte, cutting the lead to one, but that was as close as the Pirates would get, as Smith would redeem himself by locking down the ninth his eighth save in nine tries.