By Doug Bruzzone
Special to S.F. Examiner
ORACLE PARK — The San Francisco Giants had already come back from two different two-run deficits against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday afternoon, so when they were only down one in the bottom of the eighth, they knew that they could get the job done.
A single from Evan Longoria and a double from Pablo Sandoval set the table, a Mac Williamson groundout tied the game, and Kevin Pillar’s two-out single to center field floated in and landed just in front of Reds center fielder Nick Senzel, whose throw wasn’t in time to beat Sandoval racing home from second as he scored the winning run in a 6-5 Giants victory.
“You just never really know until the ball drops,” Pillar said when asked after the game if he thought the ball would fall in. “I knew I put a good swing on it. I know I didn’t hit it great so I thought there was gonna be a chance it would drop, and I knew my guy at second base would score.”
Sandoval, standing a few feet away in the clubhouse, suggested that Pillar should hit it into the gap next time.
That was the final comeback of the game. The first came early, as San Francisco’s first-inning woes continued for its starting pitchers. Coming into the game having been outscored 40-3 in first innings this season, Madison Bumgarner became the latest Giants hurler to suffer that trend, giving up a pair in the opening frame.
The Reds did get some help from the Giants defense, though, as Senzel reached on a catcher’s interference call against Erik Kratz to lead off the game, then stole second. With two outs, he and Eugenio Suarez — who had singled — scored on a Jose Iglesias single.
In response, the Giants managed to do something they hadn’t done all year: score multiple first inning runs. Sandoval delivered the key blow, an opposite-field two-run homerto score Steven Duggar to tie the game at 2-2.
The tie wouldn’t last long. With two outs in the top of the second, Jose Peraza and Senzel hit back-to-back doubles to give Cincinnati a 3-2 lead.
Bumgarner and Reds starter Tyler Mahle both settled down after that. After Senzel’s double, Bumgarner retired the next nine batters, and 10 of the next 11. Mahle, meanwhile, gave up just three baserunners between the second and sixth innings.
The Reds next struck in the top of the sixth. Yasiel Puig, the longtime Dodger now with Cincinnati, hit a long home run to left field to give them a two run lead, flipping his bat against old nemesis Bumgarner. Bumgarner, in response, didn’t look at Puig and then set down three of the next four hitters.
The sixth proved to be Bumgarner’s last inning, and he exited having allowed four runs (two earned) on eight hits, striking out seven without allowing a walk.
“Overall, pretty good start,” said Bruce Bochy. “Early, he missed some spots … He settled in. He had good stuff. Made a mistake there to Puig, but really after the second, I thought he pitched very well.”
That two-run deficit set the stage for the Giants’ second comeback. Brandon Crawford led off the bottom of the seventh by taking a walk off of Mahle. After Pillar lined out to left field, Brandon Belt stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter.
Belt, who’s been dealing with an inflamed right knee, didn’t start Sunday because the Giants wanted to give him two full days off before starting a two-game set with the Blue Jays on Tuesday. But Bochy was clear that he was available off the bench, and so when the Giants needed a weapon, he was the one whose name Bochy called.
Belt responded by launching a two-strike, two-run pinch-hit homer over the arcade in right field, dramatically tying the game and sending 35,824 fans in attendance into a joyful delirium.
Right after that, though, the Reds immediately retook the lead. Reyes Moronta loaded the bases with one out on two singles and a walk, and Bochy brought in Tony Watson, who walked Tucker Barnhart to force in a run. Watson, though, was able to get out of the inning having limited the damage by inducing a Jesse Winker groundout and a liner to short from Jose Peraza.
The Giants delivered their third comeback of the day in the bottom of the inning, and Will Smith struck out two in a 1-2-3 ninth to earn the save.
It was the third comeback victory for the Giants over the Reds this year, and repeatedly coming back against a team with a relief corps as good as the Reds’ is – according to Fangraphs, they are the second-best bullpen in the majors – can only help the team going forward.
“I think it all goes back to that day in Cincinnati,” Pillar said, referring to the game on May 3 when the Giants came back from an eight-run deficit to beat the Reds. “Really building off of that confidence, being down that many runs late in the game. I think from that point on, we’ve swung the bats real well top to bottom.”
“Once you [mount a comeback], that shows that you can do it, and you can do it again,” Bochy said. “It does a lot for a club.” On Sunday, the Giants mounted a comeback, then they did it again, and then they did it one last time for a thrilling win to avoid being swept by the Reds.