ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It’s enough pressure to stand in a major league batter’s box and face a pitcher like Chris Archer, who had a 0.29 ERA over his last four starts -- including a pair of shutouts -- and was coming off a two-hitter at Yankee Stadium.
But ratchet up that pressure if you’re Brandon Belt, forced to produce or perish – or lose your job to Brett Pill, anyway.
Belt sat all through the three-game series at Philadelphia. His major league opportunity was threatening to shrink.
[RELATED: Whom would you start -- Brandon Belt or Brett Pill?]
But he sure did crash through the wall Friday night at Tropicana Field. Belt hit a tying home run in the fifth inning, a go-ahead triple in the seventh and finished a double away from the cycle, backing Madison Bumgarner in a tidy, 4-1 victory over one of the AL’s top clubs.
With one shot at the 11th cycle in the Giants’ San Francisco era, Belt grounded out in the ninth against one-time Giant Jamey Wright. That took no shine off Belt’s first three-hit game since June 25, however.
Starting pitching report
Bumgarner just keeps getting better.
He matched his season high with 11 strikeouts in seven innings, proving he had the stuff to dominate. But he also won with smarts and a stubborn streak, throwing in enough wrinkles to keep the Rays off balance and refusing to give in with runners on base.
The left-hander is 11-6 with a 2.69 ERA for a last-place club, which might not make Steve Carlton stand up and applaud, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
He had to work hard and walked three, but the Rays only got to him for a run in the third, which stopped his scoreless streak at 16 innings.
It was apparent from the way Tampa Bay’s right-handed hitters were shortening up that their plan was to take pitches to the opposite field. That’s what backup catcher Jose Lobaton did while stinging a leadoff double. Ryan Roberts followed with a hard bunt up the third base line that probably would have rolled foul. But Joaquin Arias made an athletic pickup and throw, and the Giants appeared to have an out.
Belt quickly took his foot off first base upon receiving the throw, which he almost always does. It’s never an issue for a good umpire. But Joe West is not a good umpire. The old crew chief butchered the call and Roberts was credited with a single that put runners at the corners with no outs.
Bumgarner did well to escape while allowing just one run, which scored on Ben Zobrist’s punch hit to right field. Bumgarner struck out Evan Longoria, walked Wil Myers on four pitches, then got Sean Rodriguez to pop out to strand the bases loaded.
The whole inning cost Bumgarner just 18 pitches, but they were stressful ones – and some of that was West’s fault.
But the Rays did not advance another runner as far as third base. And that was impressive, too, since they entered with a 23-11 record against left-handed starters – the best in the major leagues.
Santiago Casilla is settling back into his setup role. He worked a perfect eighth inning.
Javier Lopez began the ninth and allowed a drive to left field that Kieschnick misplayed for a triple. But Sergio Romo entered and got a pop-up (is that the new strikeout?) and a lineout to end it.
Romo has 26 saves in 30 opportunities.
At the plate
Giants manager Bruce Bochy probably will start Pill against left-hander David Price on Saturday. But Belt certainly did enough to hold down the first base job against right-handers.
He did what the manager is always begging him to do: He jumped on a first-pitch strike.
Belt flicked his bat at Archer’s first-pitch fastball for a single in the third inning. They he stayed aggressive on first-pitch changeup while driving his 11th home run of the year into the right field seats in the fifth.
The shot snapped Archer’s streak at 16 consecutive scoreless innings.
Belt’s single and homer were the Giants’ only two hits until the seventh, when Hunter Pence chopped one of his patented infield singles. Then Belt made a nice in-game adjustment. Archer opted for a first-pitch slider this time, and Belt spit on it. He fouled off a fastball, held up on another tantalizing slider that he might have otherwise rolled over, then was ready to hit a 2-1 fastball over the plate.
Belt drove it over the head of center fielder Desmond Jennings. The ball one-hopped the wall, Pence scored easily and Belt wasn’t tentative in gunning for third base. He slid safely with a triple that gave the Giants a 2-1 lead and put him within a double of the cycle.
Yep. The Giants had four hits at that point. And Belt owned three of them.
But Archer was on tilt and perhaps Brandon Crawford sensed it when he took an aggressive swing at the first pitch and drove it for a two-run shot. Crawford had gone 259 at-bats without a home run before going deep Wednesday in Philadelphia. Three at-bats later, he hit another.
The Giants led 4-1 – and it was the most earned runs that Archer had allowed since his season debut June 1.
Roger Kieschnick had a tough game in the No.5 spot. He was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, including one with Buster Posey on the move that resulted in a double play.
Gregor Blanco ran straight back to catch Wil Myers’ deep drive in the fifth inning. Then Blanco showed he is just as adept coming in on a sinking fly ball, depriving Myers again in the eighth with a sliding catch.
No, Myers will not send Blanco a holiday card. To make matters worse, the young power hitter flipped his bat on the deep drive that ended up in the center fielder’s glove.
The Rays announced 20,144 paid. See what you missed out on, Bob Lurie?!?
The Giants and Rays continue their three-game interleague series at The Trop with a pair of former Cy Young Award winners on Saturday. Tim Lincecum (5-11, 4.61 ERA) opposes left-hander David Price (6-5, 3.57). First pitch is scheduled for 4:10 p.m. PDT.