The Pirates won 98 games last year, and their reward was a win-or-go-home game against a division rival starting the eventual Cy Young winner. That's some 1993 business, except imagine 1993 coming down to a Game 163 against Greg Maddux. Add that to the previous year, where Pittsburgh was the unfortunate prologue character in A Song of Bum and Garner, and you can imagine the frustration. Maybe the worst part is that a lot is going right for them this year. Gregory Polanco is breaking out, David Freese is bouncing back, and Jung Ho-Kang hasn't missed a beat since coming back from a horrible injury. If you'd reassured Pirates fans with those facts in February, they'd have appreciated it.
The problem is the stuff they weren't worried about. Andrew McCutchen, the best Pirate since Barry Bonds, isn't hitting. Gerrit Cole is hurt, and the Pittsburgh tradition of "rub some Searage Dust on these guys and they'll give you six innings" isn't working for the rest of the rotation. Neil Walker is having a solid Neil Walker season in New York, while Jon Niese, well, you just saw what's going on with Niese. Somewhere in Western Pennsylvania, a monkey's paw is slowly dragging itself across the floor towards a can of Iron City.
All of which is to say, it feels gauche to take too much joy in these three wins against a particularly snakebit iteration of a historically snakebit franchise. Especially when they have the Dodgers coming to town next. I believe in you, Pirates. You're one of my odd-year teams of choice. So if you want to take these drubbings as motivation for the next four games, you know, I think that's a fine idea.
There's a common refrain around these parts that Bad Pitchers Destroy the Giants. That the team does just fine against mid-rotation starters, and hangs in there against aces as well as anyone; it's the cake-throwing randos and jittery rookie fill-ins who carve them up. Most of this is probably selection bias, but the thing about selection bias is that sports kind of run on it. So when Jon Niese and his career 2.51 ERA against the Giants came in today, the proud owner of a negative-WAR kind of season, I braced myself. When I saw the Giants' starting lineup, I started making plans for a liquid lunch.
Then Joe Panik ushered an 89-MPH flumphball to its destiny and cleared the bases, and I thought, remember when we were convinced that Odrisamer Despaigne would always destroy the Giants? That was weird.
It's not as if the Giants are immune to those baffling stretches of noodle-swinging -- we just saw one on Monday -- but there's probably a lot more that goes into them than "Bad Pitchers Destroy the Giants." That was a travel day, after all. Maybe they got stuck in traffic on their way to the stadium and it put everyone out of sorts, or the pregame spread was a little off, or Brandon Belt kept everyone up late composing his Now You See Me 2 review out loud. Whatever the cause, it's more of a function of baseball weirdness than it is a pattern specific to the Giants. You don't notice when Tanner Roark soothes your team into oblivion for seven innings, but you sure do notice when it's Livan Hernandez in Groucho glasses.
Giants relievers in the last two games of this series: 10 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K.— Situational Lefty (@Chris_Sherwood) June 23, 2016
Yeah, that'll work.
It's possible that we may have been too harsh on Santiago Casilla, at least until the next time he has the effrontery to give up a run, at which point the Giants should probably trade Panik, Williamson, Tyler Beede, and Finnerty's Bar for Andrew Miller.
For years, we've been told If the Giants' farm system has one thing, it has relief pitchers. Young, live arms, rarin' to go, snorting and hollering on the mound as they pepper the outside corner with 99 MPH fastballs and drop knee-high curveballs from a dizzying height. And in 2016, the Giants are finally really depending on those guys. It turns out that there's some growing pains. That's the path they chose -- don't go out and buy relief pitching, because you can grow it yourself -- and it is fraught with false starts, disappointment, and long drives back and forth along I-80.
These are the results so far. Fangraphs thinks the Giants have one of the worst bullpens in the majors, but screw 'em, what do they know, something something #6org. No, it is a concern on the whole, but it's a concern by design; the Giants are worrying about other stuff and trusting their bullpen to the farm and the scrap heap. This is what it looks like when it comes through. Strickland and Osich have been overpowering, Gearrin and Law crafty, Kontos and Casilla the steady hands at the tiller, and Javier Lopez, well, he's very handsome and charming.
You can add Albert Suarez to that list; he was probably somewhere around #9 on the SP depth chart at the start of the season, and now he's putting up perfectly cromulent fifth starter numbers, with a good chance of sticking at long reliever when Cain comes back. His results aren't as impressive as his stuff looked at first, but as emergency fill-ins go, he looks sneaky overqualified, the Gregor Blanco of glass-case starters. Put it this way -- if the Pirates were getting a Suarez performance out of Niese, they'd feel a lot better right now.
Peña is a career .244/.288/.330 hitter in 610 major league at-bats (!), but the 30-year-old was hitting .304/.360/.424 in Triple-A, similar to his numbers last year with El Paso. Those are stats that suggest that, no, he shouldn’t start, but his high-contact bat and flexibility mean that he’s probably capable of holding down a utility job in a pinch. Which is what he’s doing.
We can probably forgive Grant for neglecting to mention that Peña would also OPS 1.188 over his first six games as a Giant, because why would he need to mention it? That's the kind of obnoxious thing the Giants do now. It wasn't necessarily going to be Ramiro Peña -- it could have been Kyle Blanks, Hak-Ju Lee, or old friend Darren Ford. Which isn't to say that Peña himself doesn't deserve credit for making the most of his opportunity and, thus far, helping the Giants survive what could be a killer stretch without their surprise iron man. But these are the Giants, who absorbed the occult nonsense of the Cardinals a few years back and repurposed it for their own dark and all-consuming needs, so there was a brass ring there for someone to grab. Good on Peña for grabbing it.
In the last two games, Williamson's season OPS has gone from .478 to .749; if you prefer the nerd stats, that's from a 30 wRC+ (a pitcher who Mike Krukow says nice things about when he bats) to 110 (Charlie Blackmon, give or take a Coors Field.)
I'm not saying I was right. I'm just saying that small sample sizes do a lot of weird things, and Williamson looks comfortable at the plate and on the field in a way that he hasn't until now. Also that I was right, and that Mac Williamson is going to be an All-Star next year, and that he'll break the Curse of Chili Davis and be the first homegrown Giants' outfielder in 30 years, and that he's better than the Showtime Lakers.
Should probably stop getting picked off, though.
After being shut out by central-casting fifth starter Jeff Locke, the Giants scored 27 runs in their next three games.
Madison Bumgarner's not angry. He just needs some space right now, that's all. When the team is celebrating the 6-1 road trip, they might just want to pay for his beers and leave him be.