By Chris Haft
Special to The Examiner
Thanks to injuries and coronavirus, the Giants’ pitching staff has become quite the high-wire act. And manager Gabe Kapler is powerless to offer his hurlers much of a safety net.
San Francisco remains baseball’s biggest surprise in 2021. But the Giants look less like a surprise party each day. They’ll likely reach the postseason, but now that Kapler must rummage through his grab bag of relievers to figure out each day’s pitching contingent, October suddenly looks potentially perilous.
The starting rotation no longer rotates. It’s a flat tire making that sickening ka-lumph, ka-lumph sound. The ailments sidelining right-hander Johnny Cueto (elbow) and Alex Wood (COVID) have forced Kapler to plan on using a merry band of relievers — three times per turn of the would-be five-man rotation — to pitch the nine innings that are required of Major League teams to record a full game.
In short: For the apparent, immediate future, the Giants must resort to a “bullpen game” twice in every five-game stretch. Scheduled off-days on Sept. 9, Sept. 20 and Sept. 27 will provide welcome rest for all.
“I am confident we could do it,” Kapler said. “I feel we have enough volume and talent in our bullpen to manage these kind of games. Does every team wish they had five healthy, strong starters all the time? Absolutely. I think we’re no different …
“We understand this is not a strategy play. This is a necessity play. It’s one that we feel we can navigate as a group.”
(Editor’s update: The “bullpen game” strategy blew up in Kapler’s face Saturday night, as reliever Jay Jackson made his first career start, gave up a lead-off HR to Trea Turner and only lasted five batters en route to a 6-1 Giants loss.)
Don’t know what will happen if the Giants are forced to play extra innings? Don’t ask. But, as Kapler indicated, he considers himself fortunate to have nine innings covered with Caleb Baragar, John Brebbia, Zack Littell, Jarlin Garcia and others.
(Editor’s update: The Giants had to go into extra innings Friday night, to prevail 3-2 in a wild game that ended on an unlikely throwing error. The Dodgers had used the “bullpen game” strategy for the series opener and ended up using 11 pitchers. The Giants used every player on their bench.
The team’s switched pitching strategies again for Sunday’s rubber match, Anyone at the game this fine Sunday afternoon, with the Dodgers starting RHP Walker Buehler (13-2, 2.05 ERA with a 1.33 ERA in his last 10 starts. Kapler opted for another “bullpen game,” with reliever Dominic Leone (3-3, 1.63 ERA) making his first career start.)
“It’s something we’ve seen good teams do,” Kapler said. “Because we have an expanded roster at this point and because we have guys who are capable of taking down innings both here and at Triple-A, I think we need to explore covering games with our bullpen. I don’t think we need to label them as ‘spot starter’ or ‘opener.’ It’s going to be a ‘pen game.’ All those just turn into labels and, really, what that means is we’re going to try to cover games with a bunch of arms.”
You’ve heard of the term “innings-eaters,” applied to starters who can work late into ballgames or relievers who can last multiple innings? Kapler may find that he’ll have to force-feed the bullpen, out by out. Baragar, Jackson, Dominic Leone and Tony Watson have averaged fewer than an inning per outing. That doesn’t inspire confidence when the Giants need as many multiple-inning outings as they can get.
However, Watson has handled numerous roles during 11 big league seasons. Count on him to find ways to last a couple of innings when necessary. Left-hander José Álvarez has proven capable of working more than an inning. Another left-hander, waiver pickup José Quintana, looked extremely competent in his 3 1/3-inning scoreless stint Aug. 31 against Milwaukee.
At the anticipated pace, however, some relievers will need regular rest, as if they were starters. And who will be available to give them a break? Another reliever.
Traditionally, when teams enter a game with an overused bullpen, that day’s starter will do his absolute best to work late into the game or even complete it to spare the relievers’ arms from further wear and tear.
Logan Webb, for instance, saved the Giants on Sept. 2 by lasting seven innings in a 5-1 win over Milwaukee that halted San Francisco’s four-game losing streak.
Kevin Gausman, the staff ace, has pitched as many as six innings twice in nine starts since the All-Star break. By contrast, he exceeded six innings in six of 18 starts before the break. Gausman can’t be faulted for his drop in performance, given the mental rigors he confronted during paternity leave.
Anthony DeSclafani remains on the active roster but has endured multiple injuries in recent weeks. He has made eight starts in a row without surpassing six innings, dating back to an 8 2/3-inning effort at Arizona on July 4.
Quite often, pitchers set new standards for themselves when they’re pushed to do so. At the risk of sounding corny, that’s what being a professional is all about.
“One way we can be good at protecting one another is when one part of the team is scuffling, another part of the team steps up … Like individual players look out for one another, we can have various pockets or parts of our team be good when one is kind of banged up,” Kapler said.
Chris Haft is a longtime baseball writer who covers the Giants for The Examiner.