AT&T PARK — Madison Bumgarner and Ray Black are both 28 years old. Bumgarner has won three World Series. Black has undergone four surgeries since his junior year of high school, and missed three years of baseball.
After yet another setback in 2017, Black was ready to take his triple-digit fastball and go back to his parents’ farm in rural Pennsylvania. Instead, while working at a youth camp near his hometown this offseason, Black hopped on a turf mound, with a high school catcher behind the plate, and started throwing.
“The ball felt pretty lively out of my hand, and somebody snuck a gun on me. I hit 98,” Black said. “I said, ‘OK, we’re going to give this another shot.'”
On Sunday, Black — the San Francisco Giants’ No. 28 prospect — made his major league debut in a 13-8 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Even Bumgarner snuck a peek at the radar gun: His slowest pitch was 97.3 mph. His fastest came in at 100.
“I think he found out last night, probably after midnight, and was on a plane at 4:30 this morning to come here, so he hasn’t had the easiest sort of travel to get here,” Bumgarner said. “I think he’s going to be a big weapon for us. I was excited to get to see him go out there.”
Black didn’t have the ideal debut — he walked two and allowed an eighth-inning pinch hit home run to Matt Carpenter — but just to be on a major league mound was achievement enough.
“We’ve had extensive conversations about when would be the right time for Black,” said general manager Bobby Evans. ” … This is an opportunity for a guy like Black who has had a long journey to get to this point. He’s earned this opportunity.”
As a senior at Wilkes-Barre (Penn.) Coughlin, Black underwent Tommy John surgery. In his first year as a reliever at Pittsburgh, he went 0-3 with a 16.74 ERA. He then underwent surgery on his throwing hand, and on his knee, and as a redshirt sophomore, he appeared in 18 games with a 6.30 ERA, and 33 strikeouts in 20 innings. That was enough for the Giants to take him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft.
Then he had surgery on his right shoulder labrum. That cost him two years.
When he finally did get going, Black rapidly advanced through the Giants system, striking out 53 in 31 innings for the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels in 2016 and climbing as high as the No. 14 prospect in San Francisco’s system. He had one problem: Control. In 94 minor league innings, he issued 76 walks.
In 2017, he had a second elbow surgery, this one a scope to take care of bone spurs and clean up the joint. He threw just 2 1/3 innings for the Giants’ rookie league team in Arizona. In his third appearance, he experienced more pain in his twice-operated-on throwing elbow. Of greater concern: He saw his velocity drop for the first time.
“That was the concerning part for me, obviously, was not having the right stuff and having a little bit of pain associated with it,” Black said. “That’s where, heading into the offseason, my mind was on [retiring].”
Black continued his throwing progression after the season, but was dubious about his ability to return. He contemplated returning to his home, sowing fields and fixing tractors on his family farm, growing bedding plants and vegetables. Then came the camp at Maximum Impact near his home in northeast Pennsylvania. He threw free and easy. He felt good. So, he got his head right and gave baseball another go.
“What I’ve done emotionally is try to control myself with the ups and the downs, and realizing that things are going to go well, and things are going to go bad,” Black said. “I try to stay a little bit more even and have sort of a balance away from the field that I can resort to — my wife and my family, people that are going to be there with me — whether things are good or bad.”
With a newfound approach to the mental side of the game, as well as his mechanics — more direct to the plate, and less rotational — he started 2018 at Double-A, and in 10 games over the first month of the season, recorded four saves, striking out 20 while walking four in 10 innings. On May 8, he was moved up to Triple-A Sacramento.
With the River Cats, Black met up with Steven Duggar, the Giants’ No. 3 prospect, who would wind up making his big league debut alongside Black on Sunday. Standing in center field, it was tough for Duggar not to sneak a look at the radar gun when Black entered. He hit 102 “a couple times.”
“I would turn around all the time,” Duggar said. “It’s loud, even out there [in center field]. It’s a lot of fun to play behind. You don’t have to do a lot.”
In 22 appearances with Sacramento, he held opposing hitters to a .133 average and a .207 on-base percentage, striking out 38 in 21 2/3 innings, while walking just seven.
When the Giants called up Duggar, they called up Black, too, dealing away veteran reliever Cory Gearrin and outfielder Austin Jackson to make room. The Texas Rangers, on the receiving end, will take over Jackson’s contract — between $2.1 and $2.2 million this year — and Gearrin’s.
From a financial standpoint, getting rid of a contract like Jackson’s — a two-year, $6 million deal — should give the Giants more buffer room under the luxury tax threshold, so that when the trade deadline comes, they could potentially add another piece.
With closer Hunter Strickland placed on the 60-day disabled list on Sunday, and the ninth inning being handled by a committee of four relievers — Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Will Smith and Sam Dyson — since Strickland punched a door in the clubhouse, Black also gives San Francisco a power arm for the middle innings, and maybe, just maybe, a future closer.
“A few months ago, I didn’t even know if I was going to be playing anymore,” Black said. “To get to this point right now, it’s incredible. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be here.”