LOS ANGELES — The last time Austin Slater faced Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw was last season — his first in the big leagues. He had a bit more than a cup of coffee with the San Francisco Giants, but it lasted long enough for him to take a whack at the future Hall of Famer.
Slater went 1-for-3 on Sept. 12, 2017, singling on the first pitch he saw from Kershaw. Then, he saw that curve.
“I think it was his first or second start off the DL,” Slater said. “I’d watched him on TV. He had all those Cy Youngs … The one I saw, it started off the plate, in the left-handed batters box, and it felt like it started at head height, and it went for a strike. It’s part of what makes him great.”
Slater starts again against Kershaw on Monday, hitting .360 this season against left-handers. After playing sparingly since he was called up in April, Slater has taken advantage of an injury to first baseman Brandon Belt, and played in 17 of San Francisco’s 19 games games since July 22, hitting .304.
“I think it’s a lot easier on a young player when he can get consistent at-bats, and he’s getting them,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “He’s going to get them in this series. Really, even against righties, I like his at-bats. He’s given us some flexibility, the fact that he can play first base makes it a little bit easier to get him out there as much as we can.”
Belt’s jersey hung in the San Francisco Giants’ locker room at Dodger Stadium on Monday, but Belt may not re-join the team until later in the series — possibly Tuesday — pending results of a rehab game on Monday night.
“Good chance of that,” Bochy said. “We’ll see how it goes tonight. If we think he needs another game or two, then not. He’ll get three at-bats tonight, and then we’ll make the call.”
Belt, who hyperextended his knee on July 25, will get three at-bats with Triple-A Sacramento on Monday night in Reno against the Aces. He went 0-for-2 on Saturday in a five-inning stint. With Slater hot and the Giants facing three straight left-handers — starting with Kershaw, against whom Belt is hitting .079 — it’s just as good that Belt is still on the shelf.
“With Belt down, I’ve been playing pretty much every day for two weeks, which is great, because I’ve been able to get into more of a rhythm at the plate,” Slater said. “It’s always nice to face lefties, but this year, the way the Dodgers are right now, they’ve got eight, nine, maybe 10 bullpen guys, so it’ll be interesting to see how they match up with that. Hopefully, I can get some at-bats against these lefties before they get out of the game.”
Slater — who started the season as the Giants’ No. 5 prospect, according to MLB.com — is the scion of what could be a youth movement for San Francisco, which has also brought up Ray Black, Steven Duggar, Andrew Suarez and minor league free agent wunderkind Dereck Rodriguez this season. He’s also been one of the only Giants regulars who has been able to hit left-handers with any success. San Francisco, as a team, hits .249 against lefties, and .233 against left-handed starters, though third baseman Evan Longoria is hitting .310.
“For me, most lefties, their offspeed comes back to the bat, obviously changeup fades away, but for me, it’s something that — I don’t know — maybe it’s them standing on the other side of the rubber,” Slater said. “I just see it, and recognize pitches better. My swing path stays close to my body, so pitches coming into me, I hit them pretty well.”
Nine of Slater’s 15 line-drives this season have come to the right side of the diamond. All four of his doubles have come to right.
“That’s definitely a swing path and approach,” Slater said. “I can pull the ball, but it just seems that’s where I’ve gotten them so far … It’s definitely an approach for me, especially later in counts, if you get behind in the count it helps you stay on offspeed pitches and put the ball in play. I think I could probably get better at taking advantage of hitting early in counts, trying to pull something, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Kershaw, of course, has a plus slider to go along with that curveball, one that bores in on the hands of right-handed hitters, or drops off the table down and in. It’s what’s kept him one of the top lefties in the game despite what’s been a dramatic drop in velocity.
“I think [my] approach plays very well off lefties,” Slater said. “Keeps you on changeups, sliders that break in off the plate, you’re able to stay on those a little bit more.”
The Giants, of course, will have a pretty good lefty going on Monday, too: Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner and Kershaw have faced one another 11 times, and the first time since 2016. Los Angeles and San Francisco have split the last 10, with Bumgarner posting a 2.56 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and 71 strikeouts to 14 walks, and Kershaw posting a 2.00 ERA with a 0.81 WHIP and 78 strikeouts to just eight walks.
“I would read box scores in the newspaper when I was a kid eating my cereal at breakfast, and you always want to watch the greatest square off against each other,” Slater said. “I’m sure tonight is going to be a good matchup.”
The Giants are 4-12 in Bumgarner’s last 16 starts against NL West teams. With the San Francisco sitting six games back of the first place in the division — and five back of the Dodgers — the Giants will need more than Slater to find hits against Los Angeles left-handers.
“Really good lineup that they throw out there,” Bochy said of Los Angeles, which ranks fourth in the majors in homers. “Bum will have to be on top of his game, but it’s going to be up to us to get some runs for him.”