The bases were loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning and the Padres’ closer, Brad Hand, was pumping 95 mph fastballs across the plate. It was everything Hunter Pence could do to foul off the one he saw and it put him in an 0-2 hole. One or two more and the at bat would’ve been over.
Instead, Brad Hand went back to the slider, which he had used to get strike one, and he tried to drop it down beneath the strike zone away from Pence. The perfect pitch to get a hitter to swing over the top of, except that Hunter Pence isn’t a hitter, he’s a weirdo.
Hunter Pence’s 18th hit of the 2018 season gave his desperate team a badly needed win and sent a surge of adrenaline through his body that let him know he was still alive on the field. You know what I mean by that. These are dark days for him. Nobody wants to feel like their days are numbered, so anything that counters that — such as winning the game for your team — feels better than a good thing to happen to you normally would.
Watch this and try not to feel the same mix of joy and relief he felt:
GIANTS WIN! Hunter Pence delivers in the clutch pic.twitter.com/LKw2NkDUvu— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) June 24, 2018
That hit had an exit velocity of 73 mph. It got past Eric Hosmer, who has been a thorn in the Giants’ side this season and had earlier biffed a Joe Panik double that led to a leadoff double that went nowhere for the Giants.
Pence made them pay with a 73 mph ground nothing after Andy Green helped build the Giants’ comeback inning by intentionally walking Buster Posey after Andrew McCutchen’s leadoff double.
Brad Hand was perhaps so flustered that he hit Brandon Crawford with a wild fastball right after Posey reached first based, which setup Hunter Pence’s 73 mph haha what game-winner.
Baseball is about winning, sure, but it’s also about stuff like this: slivers of significance measured by context.
Up until the first Marlins series, the Giants had managed to play up to the level of competition and avoided playing down. The exception had been the Padres, against whom they’d already split 10 games this season. To some degree, that has to do with the Giants being a .500 team, but we can’t discount how tough the Padres have played them, either.
These games have either been frustrating or boring, and today’s 3-2 walk-off win was a little bit of both through nine innings. If you believe as I do that the Giants should be much better than the Padres, then the parallels between the teams today was a source of that frustration: two rookie starters dominating hitters, both allowing only a solo home run to the opponent, and both making strong defensive plays when they absolutely needed them. The boring part came from the low score.
This never felt like one of those taut, 1-run thriller games because watching Eric Lauer blow fastballs by the Giants while baffling with his big curveball didn’t feel like something that should have happened. But maybe that’s all on me and I need to get my head examined.
Still, the Giants won this game and they won the series, which means maybe they have shook off the Marlins funk a little bit and will resume playing above their talent levels but never beneath it. Or maybe I’m just giving significance to a sliver of nothing.
Dereck Rodriguez needed 26 pitches to get out of the first inning and looked like a rookie the entire time. He had leadoff hitter Manuel Margot 3-2 but surrendered a home run. He struck out the next hitter on 4 pitches, then walked the next guy on 5. He struck out Corey Spangenberg on 3 pitches before surrendering a single to left field (that just barely snuck by Brandon Crawford’s mitt). And then he threw a really nice 85 mph changeup that seemed to pull away from Freddy Galvis to end the inning.
He had a strong day and settled in nicely after the 1st. He worked the 94 mph fastball up in the zone a lot and got hitters to chase and swing underneath it. His final line reflected a really stellar rookie performance: 7 IP, 4 hits, 1 walk, 1 earned run (Margot’s HR), and 6 strikeouts on 99 pitches. And this:
Dereck Rodriguez throws 95, but what a useful pitch his curve was today.— Ahmed Fareed (@FareedNBCS) June 24, 2018
Threw it 23 times, 13 times in the strikezone, but ZERO were put in play by the Padres.
Confidence breeds confidence, not just for the individual but for the group. You can see why the Giants have gone with high floor pitchers overall and recently gravitated towards sons of former major leaguers: getting confident players to the major leagues who don’t wilt under pressure can bring quick success to a team trying to quickly reload.
I should go easy on the Padres because they had two standouts in the game:
The Padres’ Eric Lauer threw 11 pitches in the 3rd inning, all for strikes. The Giants panic whenever they have to face a left-handed starter so, yeah, this guy is gonna bug us for years to come.
Robert Stock is a 28-year rookie who came into the 10th inning of a 1-1 game on the road and pitched like a 5-year vet. He faced Joe Panik, Alen Hanson, Austin Slater, and Gorkys Hernandez and set them down with ease. Or, rather, he basically did, save for Eric Hosmer’s misplay of Joe Panik’s chopper over the first base bag.
Panik saw a 97 mph fastball called a strike on the first pitch, then consecutive 98 mph fastballs. It’s the second one that he just made contact on and Hosmer backed up and tried to catch it on the hop, but the ball appeared to have sliced or cut at the last second, hitting off the heel of his glove and allowing Panik to get to 2nd base.
That could’ve been the game for the Giants right there, but Alen Hanson didn’t bunt Panik over — he struck out after Stock got a generous strike call on a sloppy slider that wrapped around the zone and followed it up with a slider just beneath the zone.
Stock didn’t look overpowering so much as he looked effective, and with 97-98 mph at his disposal, effective is probably the same as overpowering. One more thing about him: he would sometimes catch and pitch in the same game back in college. So, he’s one of those Swiss Army Knife players and he’s on a team that’s the Swiss Army Knife of annoyance.
Hunter Pence won the game, but Andrew McCutchen started the rally with a double into the left center field alley. In the top of the 6th, McCutchen sprinted towards the foul line in right field to catch a ball with only a 63% catch probability. Catches in this range are rated as 3-star defensive plays by MLB’s Statcast. McCutchen is ranked 31st in MLB and 2nd on the Giants in making 3-star catches, only behind...
He keeps popping up because he keeps making positive plays. Maybe this is the special year from a random player every winning team seems to have. Maybe he’s this year’s Conor Gillaspie...
If you didn’t catch it on the broadcast, Statcast had his solo home run in the 6th inning measured at 104.4 mph exit velocity and a 22 degree launch angle, qualifying it for MLB’s “Barrel” status. This gives him 10 barreled balls on the season, more than Brandon Crawford and Nick Hundley and as many as Joe Panik and Mac Williamson combined. Only Belt, McCutchen, Longoria, and Posey have moe.
P.S. Rest in peace, Hunter Pence’s new batting stance. Your handle burned out long before your legend ever will.