Madison Bumgarner pitched what was possibly his first flu-free game of the season and looked so impressive through six innings tonight that you might've forgotten about his three starts to begin 2016 altogether. His first pitch of the night was a 91-mph fastball that struck the outside corner against Jean Segura in that Madison Bumgarnery way that told you he was starting the game at Maximum Madison. On the fifth pitch, he bent a slider across the outside part of the plate at Segura's knees to get the called third strike.
It was the way an ace starts a game when his team is leaking oil and the kids in the backseat of the car are slipping towards the hole in the floorboards. It suggested that everything was going to be fine.
And it mostly was. Bumgarner's delivery was flawless. He put the ball wherever he wanted. His cross-body arm action provides natural deception, as we all know, but his ability to consistently change the planes of his pitches is the secret sauce. Hitters have to track not only where the ball's coming from, but also where it might explode -- will this explode up above the letters? Down below my knees?
He had the cutter working at the knees, above the letters, into the righties, and the curveball working as the effective snapper we know it to be. 8 strikeouts in 7 innings is vintage Bumgarner, and if he started to look a little gassed in 7th, you could chalk that up to still building up stamina after suffering from a weeks-long illness.
Of course, his biggest mistake came in that 7th inning when one of those fastballs didn't explode above the letters. It was just fat enough for Wellington Castillo to crush it over the wall in left-centerfield wall.
Zack Greinke's lone mistake also came in the 7th inning. Gregor Blanco timed Greinke's off-speed pitch perfectly to hit a triple. Hunter Pence would put up a valiant fight as a pinch hitter, staving off Greinke's nasty sliders late in the at bat when earlier in it, Pence looked completely fooled, falling behind 0-2. Angel Pagan would eventually knock Greinke out of the game with an RBI single two batters later.
I recap all of this to say that this was basically the game. It was a classic duel. Both aces were on. If you dig a little deeper and just go by the eye test, the Diamondbacks hitters looked slightly more comfortable than the Giants hitters; they were able to track a lot of the breaking balls Bumgarner tried to throw down and in and made a lot of loud contact that way. But Bumgarner never gave in. If the Giants had figured out a way to tie the game before Bumgarner's spot in the lineup came up in the bottom of the 7th, he would've pitched the 8th.
This was a good game.
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The bad news is that the Giants have dropped their third consecutive series, all against division rivals. They haven't had a 7-9 record since 2005. You remember 2005, don't you? Jeremy Accardo, Yamid Haad, Adam Shabala, Jason Ellison misplaying a line drive to left field at Dodger Stadium allowing 3 runs to score in a walk-off loss... and... that's really all that was memorable about it. Could this year's 7-9 be another 2005? The Giants certainly have the potentially regression-induced and injury-catalyzed talent and depth to pull it off, but you wouldn't necessarily bet on it, because the upside for most of this talent seemingly exceeds 2005's roster. The depth, on the other hand...
Trevor Brown was the pinch hitter when the Giants absolutely needed a hit in the bottom of the ninth. It went about as well as you'd expect the backup catcher's at-bat to go: a strikeout looking on a quality slider. That the Giants are *dying* without Ehire Adrianza should say it all: the bench and 40-man roster is very quickly a wasteland if you go to far down it. Then again, did you see Derek Law work himself into and out of that jam in the 8th inning? That was big league pitching from an exciting talent.
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It's somewhat unfair to compare current standings to previous year's standings, given the competition, injuries, performance levels, etc. In the championship seasons, the Giants have been at or above .500 after 16 games. Last season, 6-10, same as 2008. So, the reasons for optimism are clear: it's only 16 games and the Giants players are capable of better play. But here's the main reason for pragmatism going forward: there are lots and lots of teams that will be hunting for a playoff spot this year, and a bad April seems far more likely to sink a team than in the past because of the Nationals, the Mets, the Pirates, the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Dodgers, and the Diamondbacks.
If this game had happened in the first week of the season (when the Giants were still good), you'd think of it as that and nothing more. As the third loss of a 10-game home stand and the 7th loss in 8 games (all to division rivals), it's another disaster. It's easy, almost willed by your baseball fan DNA, to mix this in with the junk and use it as proof of a disastrous future. What's wrong with the Giants? But there's nothing new to add to the list we drew up yesterday. Today proved no point.
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Then again, is Matt Duffy back? Is Matt Duffy elite? He dove to catch a screaming liner off the bat of Chris Owings in the top of the 6th inning. The rest of the time, he sprayed the baseball all over the field, crushing pitches off the bricks in right field and into the left-centerfield gap.
It's easy to dream on one game, but it was against a top-flight pitcher after Duffy struggled against pitching of all kinds in the weeks leading up to tonight. Any permutation of a successful 2016 involves a healthy and productive Matt Duffy.
In other words, the season might not be over after sixteen games if Matt Duffy is back after this one.
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Happy Birthday, Brandon Belt. Think of an 0-for-4 with 3 strikeouts as like an envelope filled with coupons for a free foot rub or free hugs. A time will come when Zack Greinke will have to pay what's been promised.