SAN FRANCISCO – By now, there’s no telling where rock bottom will be for the Giants this season.
But Brandon Belt couldn’t have felt a lower moment in his baseball life than the ninth inning Friday night.
With the final out skidding toward him, Belt let Anthony Rizzo’s grounder go through his legs for a Buckneresque, two-run error that put the Chicago Cubs ahead. Belt also got himself thrown out on the bases in the seventh inning, short-circuiting a two-run rally that could’ve resulted in more.
And with a chance to make amends in the ninth, he hit one of many hard outs by the side in garish orange. It added up to a 3-2 loss that dropped the Giants 10 games under .500 and that much deeper in the NL West.
Belt’s error came as Sergio Romo, who took over with a 2-1 lead, was on the verge of pitching out of trouble. The game only got to Rizzo because Junior Lake barely beat a near double-play grounder to extend the ninth.
The error also deprived Matt Cain of a victory; he appeared unfettered while throwing 115 pitches over seven innings. Cain lasted just long enough to position himself for a victory when the Giants took the lead on Jeff Francoeur’s two-run blooper in the seventh.
Pablo Sandoval walked to start the winning rally and also came up with a huge play in the eighth, when he made a diving stop of Darwin Barney’s ground ball with two runners in scoring position.
The Cubs were forecasted to be so bad this season, their famously optimistic fans might have been tempted to mothball the phrase “wait till next year.”
Well, guess what? The Cubs are having another lost season. And they have a better record than the Giants.
Starting pitching report
This hasn’t been Cain’s year, but a strong second half would be important for the psyche of the club – especially with at least two and possibly three spots in the rotation looking like massive question marks for 2014.
Cain still has the stuff to pitch out of jams. He showed that much in the first inning, when David DeJesus singled and third baseman Pablo Sandoval mishandled Junior Lake’s grounder for an error.
Cain struck out the next three batters, using mostly slider and fastball to polish off Anthony Rizzo, Nate Schierholtz and Starlin Castro.
Cain used the ballpark well the rest of the night, getting the Cubs to hit fly balls to the spacious outfield. But Schierholtz, the Cubs’ new cleanup hitter following the trade that sent Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees, tagged him for a double to the gap in left-center in the sixth. Starlin Castro bounced a single up the middle to plate the game’s first run.
Cain yielded nothing more, and ended up holding the Cubs to six hits and a run in seven innings. It was just the second time in his 12 home starts that Cain completed seven innings while allowing one run or fewer.
Entering the game, Cain’s 5.74 ERA at home was the second highest among all qualifiying major league starting pitchers.
Maybe the Giants will decide to shut down Cain, or at least limit his workload down the stretch if they clearly fall from contention. But it doesn’t appear they have any health concerns with their opening-day ace right now. Giants manager Bruce Bochy allowed Cain to throw 115 pitches.
Do the Giants ever have a calm, quick eighth inning?
They pulled a narrow escape after Javier Lopez issued a one-out walk to Schierholtz, Castro greeted Santiago Casilla with a single and both runners advanced on a wild pitch.
But Casilla escaped by striking out Luis Valbuena, then Sandoval made a diving stop to his left to smother Darwin Barney’s ground ball. Sandoval got to his feet, threw across the diamond and the sellout crowd gave the club its loudest ovation of the night.
The ninth was just as nail-biting. Sergio Romo gave up a single and a walk to start the inning, and in an odd sight, the Giants busied the bullpen as Jose Mijares started getting loose. But Romo struck out David DeJesus, then got Lake to hit into a fielder’s choice.
Mijares was plenty warm to face Rizzo, a left-handed hitter, but Giants manager Bruce Bochy stuck with Romo. Even down 3-1 in the count, Romo continued to challenge the Cubs’ top home run hitter, who once hit a tape-measure shot off him in spring training.
Romo’s 3-2 pitch was over the middle, though, and Rizzo hit it down the first base line. Belt was in front of it and dropped to one knee, but it somehow got past him as the Cubs dashed madly around the bases.
Romo (3-5) took the loss and his blown save was just his fourth in 28 chances.
At the plate
The Cubs are supposed to be the cursed franchise, but the Giants were the ones that couldn’t find any luck after hard contact.
Buster Posey barreled up three pitches and didn’t have anything to show for it. Brandon Crawford stung the ball twice, too. And Gregor Blanco hit a 365-foot out to the base of the wall in right field.
The air was cooler and foggier and the ball didn’t carry the way it did earlier in the week, when the Reds pounded six home runs over four games. Of course, the Giants didn’t hit any under still conditions then, either.
Sandoval looked to start a rally with a leadoff double in the second inning. But he held on Hunter Pence’s ground out, then took third on Belt’s roll-over ground out. Francoeur struck out to end the inning.
The Giants didn’t draw a walk until the seventh inning, and it started their go-ahead rally. Sandoval trotted to first base and Pence followed with a double down the left field line. Cubs manager Dale Sveum opted to intentionally walk Belt to set up the double play with Francoeur.
But the veteran managed to float a pitch into the perfect area of right field. The Giants took a 2-1 lead and might have gotten more, but Belt was thrown out trying to score after the throw home skipped to the screen.
The Giants traded Schierholtz for Pence last year, and one right fielder robbed another in the third inning. Pence got a good jump and wagged his tongle as he made a charging, diving catch of Schierholtz’s sinking line drive.
The outfield play was less stellar in the seventh, when Wellington Castillo hit a blooper that fell between Pence, Brandon Belt and Tony Abreu in shallow right field. But Cain pitched around it.
The Giants announced 41,797 paid, and fans no doubt noticed a different PA voice. Renel Brooks-Moon is recuperating after breaking her leg. Jim Hallisy, the longtime voice of the USF Dons, filled in for her.
The Giants and Cubs continue their three-game series Saturday at AT&T Park. Madison Bumgarner (10-6, 2.93 ERA) will oppose left-hander Chris Rusin (1-0, 5.40). First pitch is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. PDT.