ORACLE PARK — The San Francisco Giants have had 39 different players play in at least one game for them this season, tied for the most in the National League (which averages 35 men played at this point in the season) and tied for third-most in the Major Leagues.
The front office has made a host of moves aimed at incrementally improving a bad roster with bloated contracts. That means, as new and better pieces become available, there may not be room or time for earlier acquisitions to make an impression.
After a season largely lost to the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, Mac Williamson, one of San Francisco’s most beguiling prospects and a hopeful salve for the revolving door in the outfield, has been given an extended look, but since his first game, he’s struggled. In Thursday’s 12-inning 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves, he struck out five times and left five men on base as San Francisco fell victim to Austin Riley and failed to capitalize on another quality start by Madison Bumgarner.
“Obviously, striking out five times in a game is not fun, especially when you lose, because there were multiple times when I could have helped the team,” said Williamson, who became the fifth Giant in history to strike out five times in a game.
Wednesday night, Williamson had long conversations with Stephen Vogt and the man who may be his replacement in left, Tyler Austin. During Thursday’s game, he had a long conversation with Brandon Belt (the last Giant to strike out five times in a game in 2013). He’s also spoken to pitcher Derek Holland about the mental side of the game.
Williamson has asked for tweaks from hitting coaches Alonzo Powell and Rick Schu, spent hours watching video and even sent some tape to his personal hitting guru Doug Latta to analyze.
“If I had the answer, I probably wouldn’t have struck out five times today,” Williamson said. “That’s the frustrating part, is I feel like I come in here every single day working hard. I’m not taking it for granted. I put in the time in the cage. I put in the time in the video room. Every time we have early work, I’ve been out there.”
One thing has remained clear with the 11 different men cycled through the Giants’ outfield: Not getting hits is somewhat tolerable, but striking out is not. After the game, Bochy said the club’s braintrust will meet to determine what’s to be done about Williamson, and about left field, which has remained a revolving door since the departure of Barry Bonds in 2007.
“We’ve got to get production from left field,” said manager Brucve Bochy. “There’s no getting around that.”
Williamson, who got off to a scorching start in 2018, hitting .316 with three home runs and six RBIs in his first five games, looked to be the left field answer, but a tumble over the bullpen mounds and a headfirst fall into the side wall at then-AT&T Park derailed his season.
After hitting .237 with 18 strikeouts in 22 spring training games, Williamson cleared waivers on the eve of Opening Day and proceded to torch Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .378 average, with nine homers in 23 games. Since his first game back in the Majors — which saw him slug a home run — he hasn’t been especially inspiring, hitting .128 and striking out 20 times in 15 games.
Since Williamson’s return, he hasn’t seen the consistent breaking stuff he’s seen the past four years in the minors. Instead, he’s seen better arms with better fastballs, and he’s been caught in between in his timing. He’s too far behind the fastballs and too far ahead of the offspeed.
“When you’re late on the fastball, it really exposes you to everything, so you feel like you need to cheat the fastball, and you’re exposed to the offspeed,” Williamson said. “Maybe you cheat at the fastball and you swing at balls.”
Williamson’s struggles with men on base hurt all the more keenly because of the start Bumgarner turned in.
The Giants’ lefty delivered one of his best starts this season, exiting with a 3-2 lead after scattering six hits over six innings, allowing two runs and two walks while striking out six. Bumgarner threw 102 pitches (71 strikes) and got a season-high 17 swings and misses, using his cutter to great effect.
San Francisco scored two runs on two hits, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly in the second, and though the Braves saw four straight men reach against Bumgarner in the fourth, he got Charlie Culberson to foul out to Evan Longoria, reaching over the dugout railing, to end the threat.
In the bottom of the fourth, Williamson came up with Longoria aboard with a one-out walk, but struck out on six pitches. It was the first of four times he’d end innings with a strikeout, with at least one man on base.
Atlanta’s Tyler Flowers led off the top of the fifth by yanking an up-and-away 92 mph fastball from Bumgarner into the left field seats, tying things at 2-2.
With two outs in the bottom of the frame, Joe Panik went down in the zone to loft a double into the left center field gap, and Steven Duggar laced a liner to center to bring him in.
In the bottom of the seventh, Austin — hitting .344 against lefties — homered for the second day in a row to widen the lead to 4-2, skulling a 1-0 changeup from lefty Sean Newcomb to dead center field. Then, Riley — who finished the series 6-for-17 with three home runs — jumped on a Tony Watson 93-mph sinking fastball that didn’t sink in the top of the eighth for a two-run homer, tying things at 4-4.
In the eighth, the Giants got a one-out walk again to Longoria, but Kevin Pillar and then Williamson struck out to leave him at first.
“Maybe I could go talk to Riley a little bit, get his opinion, maybe get some pointers from him,” Williamson said. “That kid can hit.”
In the minors, when he’s been hot, Williamson typically will get to the park a bit later, and, as he said, “less is more” in terms of approach to preparation. It’s different in the Majors, and he admitted to possibly overworking and outthinking himself.
San Francisco got Donovan Sloano aboard with a leadoff walk in the ninth, and got a two-out Duggar free pass on six pitches, but Buster Posey grounded out to third to end the inning. In the 10th, Longoria reached second on a walk and a wild pitch, but Williamson struck out on seven pitches against Touki Toussaint to end the inning.
Reyes Moronta surrendered a leadoff single to right by Dansby Swanson in the 13th, and then a two-out, two-strike RBI single to Riley for the winning margin, but again, Williamson came up again with a chance to do some damage in the 13th. With Pillar at first and one out, he struck out swinging at a high fastball.
“At that point, I’m just battling,” said Williamson, who stood and took seven minutes of questions. “He’s got a good spinner that he throws 40 percent of the time, and he went fastball-fastball-fastball to start the at-bat off. They’re pitching me differently than they’re pitching in the book, than what they normally do … They’re not afraid to throw to me right now.”