By Doug Bruzzone
Special to S.F. Examiner
AT&T PARK — In a season where Derek Holland has been looking to prove himself, he hasn’t had many bigger tests.
Off the field, Holland has spent the last week dealing with the fallout over his appearance on MLB Network last Wednesday, where he engaged in crude anti-Asian racial stereotypes with a Japanese member of the Giants staff.
On the field Sunday, Holland faced off against the Texas Rangers — the team with which he broke into the majors, and the team who lit him up twice last year, scoring 12 runs in eight innings against him over two starts, dealing him two losses. In the background: Holland’s season-long quest to prove that he can pitch a full season without tiring down the stretch, which was a struggle for him last year.
Holland turned in one of his most effective starts of the year on Sunday, giving up just one run on three hits over 6 1/3 innings in the Giants’ 3-1 win. He cruised through most of the game, with the only blemish coming in the second inning when he gave up a walk to the red hot Rougned Odor and a double to Elvis Andrus that scored Odor from first.
When he walked off the field in the top of the seventh, AT&T Park rose to its feet to give him a standing ovation, which meant a lot to Holland, considering that he knows his actions made some people turn against him.
“With the stuff that happened off the field, that [ovation] meant a lot to me,” Holland said after the game. “I appreciate them for doing that.”
Holland needed help to secure the win.
Evan Longoria opened up the scoring in the bottom of the first inning, tripling to right-center field and then scoring on a passed ball. Holland gave up the RBI double to Andrus in the second, and in the top of the third, with Andrus on second, Brandon Crawford made a sensational diving play on an Adrian Beltre grounder to preserve the tie, with Brandon Belt doing an equally impressive job picking a tough hop on Crawford’s low throw to first. It was a play that changed the momentum of the game and prevented the Rangers from taking the lead.
In the seventh inning, Holland gave up consecutive singles to Joey Gallo and Isiah Kiner-Falefa to start the inning, and then Carlos Tocci bunted them over. With one out and runners on second and third, Holland gave way to Tony Watson, who struck out Robinson Chirinos before Rougned Odor came to the plate.
Odor has been on a tear in August, hitting .303 with seven homers this month, including homers in each of the first two games of the series, so seemed like a break when he tried to surprise the Giants with a bunt. Watson cleanly fielded the bunt to end the inning and the threat, stranding Holland’s runners.
“Anytime you come in with runners on, you don’t want those guys to score,” Watson said. “What [Holland] had done the previous six innings … all in all, pitched a great game. Just try to go out there and pick him up.”
None of it would have led to a win without Steven Duggar. With two out and runners on first and second in the bottom of the fourth inning, Duggar came to bat with Holland up behind him. He wasn’t expecting to get a pitch to hit.
“I went to the plate and there was a base open … I knew with Holland behind me that I would have to really just hunt a certain pitch, try to get them out over the plate,” Duggar said. “The previous at bat, he got in, shattered my bat, blew me up. I was like, let’s get him out over the plate. If he gives me a pitch to hit that’s over the plate, then we’ll put our best swing on it … I thought that they were going to selectively pitch around me.”
When he got a 2-2 fastball over the plate, Duggar put a charge into it. He lined it into right-center field, thinking triple all the way, and easily made it into third.
“I think this is a great park for [Duggar],” manager Bruce Bochy said after the game. That deep corner is why. With his speed both on the base paths and as a center fielder, he can capitalize on balls he hits into Triples Alley, and go get them when he’s chasing down fly balls.
As the season winds down – the Giants will still believe that they’re in the playoff race until they’re officially eliminated, but with a mediocre record and their franchise catcher out for the year, the writing’s on the wall – seeing Steven Duggar continue to take steps forward is one of the most important items on the Giants’ agenda.
Mark Melancon, too, is on that agenda. Melancon, signed to a four-year $62 million contract before the 2017 season to be the team’s closer, has struggled with injuries and effectiveness in his two seasons in San Francisco, but he’s finally looking like the guy the Giants thought they’d get when they signed him. Melancon earned the save with a scoreless inning on Sunday, with the only flaw being a bloop single into center field by Shin-Soo Choo.
According to Bochy, it all comes back to health. Melancon’s stuff and command are back, and that means that his confidence is too, which makes him a formidable presence at the back of the bullpen.
All that also applies to Holland. Last year with the White Sox, Holland wore down in the second half and eventually got released in early September. Now he’s back, pitching arguably his best game far into the dog days of the season, and there is at least a little satisfaction in beating his original team.
“It was one of the places they let me go, as if they didn’t see much of me continuing,” he said. “In general, this season and going into last season, I wanted to be able to show that I was healthy. I did the first part of being healthy, and continuing forward with that, I wanted to show that I could still pitch.”