AT&T PARK — Earlier this week, while throwing to bullpen catcher Eli Whiteside during a side session at Coors Field, Chris Stratton found something not usually found at that altitude: A breaking ball.
“It’s a weird place to find it,” Stratton said.
That breaker had been an out pitch for the San Francisco Giants’ starter over the month of April. Stratton’s big 12-6 curveball was among the upper echelon of big league curves, if not in swing-and-miss, then in weak contact. After holding hitters to a .214 average in April, Stratton lost a feel for the curve, and hitters battered him in five May starts, hitting him at a .314 clip.
Then, in that bullpen in Colorado, he got out ahead of himself, and sped up his tempo. By the time he took the mound on Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies, he looked much more like April Stratton, fanning seven in six shutout innings in a 4-0 Giants win. Stratton and Joe Panik — in his first game off the disabled list — provided a much-needed boost on a night where the Giants may have lost first baseman Brandon Belt to appendicitis.
“Getting my tempo up is what helped me really turn the page,” Stratton said. “The whole bullpen, honestly, we moved the catcher up and threw some down to him. In Colorado, you’ve really got to get out in front. It helps you get your arm out and on top.”
On Friday, Stratton used his fastball to establish early in counts against Philadelphia (31-24), went to his slider and change up to get groundouts and finished hitters off with his curve, showing command of all four pitches. He threw the curve 19 times in 95 pitches, but got four strikeouts with the deuce as hitters went 1-for-9 against it.
“How sharp he was with his command, I think his pitches overall were crisper,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “The breaking ball, the slider and change up, to go with the fastball, his stuff was up a little bit tonight. He was up around 92 to 93 there. Really was hitting his spots.”
At no time was that more apparent than in the sixth, when, with one out, he got behind Odubel Herrera 2-0, before baffling him with a change up and a curve that had him swinging out of his helmet. Herrera grounded out weakly to third on a 91-mph fastball.
Stratton then finished a six-pitch at-bat by fanning Carlos Santana with a big bending curve for his seventh strikeout of the evening.
Panik — who hadn’t played since April 27 due to a thumb injury he suffered in a collision with the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig — returned to the leadoff spot and scored a run after a leadoff walk in the first, adding an RBI single to drive in Mac Williamson in the second. He reached base in each of his first four plate appearances, finishing the day 2-for-3.
“When you’re out for four or five weeks, when you come back, you’re a little excited,” Panik said. “Sometimes you feel a little anxious, but that walk in the first inning kind of settled everything down, and I kind of got into the flow of the game.”
In the fourth, Brandon Crawford — the odds-on favorite to win Player of the Month with his .412 May — stayed hot with a pop fly double over the right shoulder of third baseman Maikel Franco, in front of the sliding left fielder Nick Williams. He rode home on a 2-2 single to left by Gorkys Hernandez, who ran down an Odubel Herrera drive to the left center field gap in the top of the frame.
Andrew McCutchen led off the seventh with his second triple of the year, victimizing reliever Hector Neris. He rode home on the first of Neris’s three wild pitches in the inning, which he uncorked to Pablo Sandoval, who took over for Belt in the third.
The Giants improved to 27-30 with the win, playing with their full lineup — including Panik and Williamson — for just two innings, before Belt had to exit.