SAN DIEGO – With eight games to go and the Giants still wearing two marathon bibs, this is the time when a manager hands a full cup of faith to his everyday players. Either they’re swift enough, or they aren’t.
But what if they’re hurt, like Angel Pagan and Michael Morse? Or what if they’re trying to knock off a month of rust, like Brandon Belt? What if you’ve scored 12 runs in seven games? Do you keep the faith then?
“Sure, I don’t know what else you do,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, after a ninth-inning rally fell one hit short in a 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on Saturday.
“We’ve run into two really well pitched games and that’s going to happen. In this ballpark we’ve had a tough go and mainly it’s because they have really good pitching and they’ve done a good job on us.”
The Giants will have to find a way to salvage the last game of this series, then rise to the occasion against more good pitching. They’ll face Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in the next series at Dodger Stadium – a three-game set that either will ice the NL West for the Dodgers or make the final weekend a free-for-all.
Then the Giants come home for four games with the Padres, where they’ll get one more look at Andrew Cashner. That cannot be a spritely thought after the ultra-talented right-hander took a two-hit shutout into the ninth inning.
It required a solo home run from Hunter Pence and a two-out, two-strike RBI single from Gregor Blanco to keep the Giants from being shut out for a second consecutive day at Petco Park. Brandon Crawford lined out with the tying run at third base to end it as the Giants missed a chance to gain ground in the NL West.
They are 3 ½ behind the Dodgers with eight to play. They remained one game ahead of Pittsburgh for the top spot in the NL wild card standings, with the Milwaukee Brewers clattering about a further 3 ½ games behind the Pirates.
The Giants must end with a flourish to have any shot at winning the division. But it might be even more important to get this offense ironed out before the postseason begins.
Bochy said he might move Pence back down after one day in the leadoff spot. He’s also thinking of giving a day off to Belt, who is 0-for-7 with three strikeouts and a pinch walk since returning from the concussion DL. Belt hadn’t played since Aug. 8 and has had limited exposure to live pitching since then.
Do the Giants give Belt a chance to settle in, or do they pull the plug and start Travis Ishikawa? Or go with Buster Posey at first with Andrew Susac behind the plate? And we haven’t even gotten to the Juan Perez/Gary Brown choice in center field. Maybe Ishikawa in left field and Gregor Blanco in center? Who leads off with Pagan out, knowing they have a .304 average and .346 on-base percentage in his 91 starts as the leadoff hitter, while all others have combined for .223 and .279?
It’s a conundrum. Bochy's door was closed for a time to reporters when the clubhouse opened following Saturday's loss. He and GM Brian Sabean were going over their options.
Belt, for his part, is hoping he’ll get the chance to play.
He said his called strikeout in the ninth was on a pitch from Kevin Quackenbush – an apt name for a reliever from a bearded bullpen that looks like a “Duck Dynasty” casting call -- that was up in the zone. Belt looked at replays that confirmed it was a ball.
“That’s the battle I’m kind of having right now,” Belt said. “But I’d rather my eye be good and know that’s a ball. I had another strikeout against Cashner and when I’m going good, I’m putting that ball in left field. I’m a tad bit slow, just enough to be a little behind. But honestly, I felt better than yesterday.”
Belt said he plans to go into the cage Sunday morning, crank the pitching machine all the way up and track more pitches.
“It’s retraining my eyes,” he said. “That’s what was wrong when I had the concussion. I’m just a tick off, and that’s enough to make a lot of outs.”
When you aren’t scoring many runs, any little mistake can cost you the game. Second baseman Joe Panik made a big one in the third inning after a smooth, forehand pickup of a hard-hit ground ball. He had time to pivot and throw out the deceptively fast Cashner at second base, but rushed it and the wide throw skipped away for an error that scored an unearned run.
“It just got away,” said Panik, who has committed eight of the 18 errors by Giants second basemen. “I kind of forced it because I didn’t have the right grip on it. That’s something that can’t happen, honestly.”
Especially against Cashner, who had a shot at his second consecutive two-hit shutout before Pence hit his 20th homer of the season leading off the ninth.
“He’s got everything you’d ever want from a starting pitcher,” Pence said. “He has a really good fastball, command of three pitches, a slider and changeup, and even when you’re looking for the fastball, he makes it really tough on you.”
Said Bochy: “I don’t know who would’ve hit him tonight.”
Maybe Pagan? Maybe Morse? Even Marco Scutaro? The Giants would love to know the answer. Instead, they have to move forward and puzzle it out with the pieces they have.