ORACLE PARK — One of the reasons San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy shook up his lineup on Friday was to find some way for his club to quit playing from behind.
The Giants had yet to score a single run in the first inning all season — the only team to hold that dubious distinction. They’d scored in nearly one quarter of first innings a year ago, but had set a National League record by failing to score in the first 25 games of 2019.
With Kevin Pillar and Tyler Austin at the top of the lineup, San Francisco finally snapped the streak on Friday, but on a long-advertised special-event night against the New York Yankees, with Madison Bumgarner on the mound, the Giants drew just 34,950, and couldn’t overcome a depleted Yankees roster missing its biggest draws, in a 5-3 loss. It was largely because of Bumgarner, who gave up at least four runs in six innings or less for the second start in a row.
“He was just a touch off with the command,” Bochy said of his ace. “He had trouble hitting his spots there at times.”
In the top of the first, Bumgarner gave up four hits to the first five batters, allowing two runs with the first five balls being put in play with exit velocities of 96 mph or faster. San Francisco would play from behind yet again, in front of a crowd that, at least aurally, tilted heavily in favor of the visiting Yankees, and yet again, the Giants would have to play from behind.
“I’m not getting enough feel to get the ball where it’s supposed to go,” said Bumgarner, who has a 7.20 ERA in the first inning this season. “I threw a lot of strikes, just not a lot of quality strikes. A lot of hit-able pitches. I’ve got to do better. I can’t put us in a hole like that. That’s two times in a row.”
Familiarity with New York starter (and former Mariner) James Paxton was the main reason why Bochy put former Blue Jay Pillar and former Twin and Yankee Austin in the one and two holes. Though Pillar led off with a first-pitch pop-out, Austin flared a single into right field. After a looping Brandon Belt double over a leaping Luke Voit, the Giants got a Buster Posey sacrifice fly to right to end their ignominious streak.
Bumgarner, though, allowed another run in the third on an RBI single by Gio Urshela — a ball that one-hopped Belt in left and glanced off his glove — and another in the fifth on a Voit RBI double. Voit, though, was erased by Steven Duggar, who cut him down at third trying to advance on a fly ball by Gleyber Torres. The Yankees added another run on three straight one-out singles in the sixth, ending Bumgarner’s night.
President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has said that he holds no special attachment to San Francisco heroes of glory gone, heroes who have gotten generous contract extensions in order to keep the turnstyles spinning as the win totals keep dropping.
Bumgarner gave up 11 hits and five runs in 5 2/3 innings, the fourth of his last five starts giving up four or more earned runs in six innings or less. Bumgarner’s slide — his 4.30 ERA would be the worst of his career by more than half a run — is a bad sign not only for the Giants’ present, but for their future.
The general perception around baseball has been that Bumgarner will likely be a trade piece as Zaidi tries to rebuild the team on the fly, rather than signing veterans and trying to extend the life of their core. That core includes Bumgarner, and more starts like Friday’s, against a largely-punchless Yankees lineup — without injured Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Clint Frazier — won’t help bring the kind of return that can re-stock a top-heavy farm system with few blue chip prospects.
Teams like the Yankees could be shopping for a veteran arm with playoff experience in three short months. An up-close audition like Friday won’t bring the kind of return the Giants want from a trade partner.
As illustrated by the first inning, Bumgarner’s hard-hit rate by opposing batters has gone up every year since 2014. According to FanGraphs, since 2014, Bumgarner’s hard contact rate has gone from 26.9%, to 27.8%, to 31.6%, to 35% to 41.6% last season. Entering Friday, his hard-hit percentage this season was 48.3%, by far the highest of his career.
New York hit 13 total balls with an exit velocity of 96 mph or more against Bumgarner. Asked if there were some common thread from his three bad outings, Bumgarner simply said, “No.” He also said that there were no mechanical issues.
“I can’t expect more out of myself than I already do,” Bumgarner said.
Even with Bumgarner continuing his run of sub-par starts, San Francisco was able to make things at least somewhat interesting. Austin worked a seven-pitch leadoff walk in the sixth, and after a 402-foot shot from Belt to center — a would-be two-run home run — was snagged at the wall, Buster Posey came up with an RBI double to cut the lead to 5-2. An RBI single to center off the fists of Yangervis Solarte trimmed the lead to two, chasing Paxton. Brandon Crawford, though, would strike out against reliever Tommy Kahnle, stranding Solarte at second.
San Francisco loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, but Posey struck out looking against Adam Ottavino. The Giants went 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position on the night, actually improving their season average in those situations — .214 entering action.
“It’s an uphill climb getting down 5-1,” Bochy said.
To add insult to an already trying night (and season), Voit’s two-run home run to straightaway center in the ninth off of Mark Melancon — the first runs he’s allowed all season — was given a rousing cheer by the San Francisco crowd. It was that kind of night.