It was a game of twos. Two home runs combined to give the Giants a two-run win over the Phillies to win their second game of this four-game series. The Giants used only two pitchers to get the job done.
The second fastball Will Smith threw to Bryce Harper in the top of the ninth — with the second batter of the inning, Sean Rodriguez, already on base — was a pitcher’s pitch that had become a part of home plate umpire Nic Lentz’s strike zone as the game wore on. A 94 mph beauty that popped Buster Posey’s mitt to get a called strike two.
It infuriated Harper, who was on the verge of following up his glorious 2-home run night with an 0-for-4. Smith wouldn’t throw him another fastball, but knowing that Harper now had to widen his own strike zone, if only to protect, his next two pitches were sliders, the second one being so sharp and perfect that Harper couldn’t help but swing over the top of it as it darted down and away from him.
Smith had two outs but had to face power-righty Rhys Hoskins. He didn’t give into the masher and instead threw him a bunch of balls out of the zone and walked him, setting up a showdown with lefty Corey Dickerson. Smith threw exactly one fastball to him and instead struck him out with a slider to end the game.
Smith wasn’t crudely overpowering, he was exquisite, his sliders and sequencing a work of art. Everything he did had to be fine to thread the needle of a threatening Phillies lineup against a slim margin of error provided by the comically inept Giants offense. But Smith wasn’t alone.
Jeff Samardzija had his best start of the season, the second time he’s thrown eight innings in 2019. He allowed two baserunners all day — a home run to Corey Dickerson in the top of the first off an booming home run to straightaway centerfield — and a single to Cesar Hernandez in the top of the 8th. Today was the 12th time he’s pitched at least eight innings for the Giants since they signed him to his 5-year deal.
Samardzija 8+ innings since 2016
When Jeff Samardzija is on, he’s really good. It’s the walks that get me. He seems like the kind of pitcher who should be walking 3-4 guys a game, putting himself in big trouble. Earlier in his career, he was that kind of pitcher (3.8 BB/9 in his first five and a half seasons). With the Giants, he’s been almost too good at pounding the zone, and in the earlier part of the contract, that was kinda okay because he could cover more mistakes with his fastball than he can now.
But ever since his injury last season and the disaster that ensued, he lost that ability. He seems like the kind of pitcher who would take years of struggle to adjust to that diminished skill set, to the point that he might simply wash out. Earlier in the season, he was that kind of pitcher — the Giants were just going to try to get him through four or five innings and let the bullpen do the rest.
That Cesar Hernandez single in the 8th inning meant that Samardzija didn’t pitch out of the stretch for nearly eight innings. He didn’t walk anybody and he managed to do that by doing what he always does: pound the strike zone. This time around, though, he added a wrinkle: pitch up in the zone.
He didn’t work up there almost exclusively, but he did it often enough that the intent became clear. Samardzija has maintained one of the higher spin rates on his fastball as his season has gone on, just a little bit beneath Justin Verlander’s fastball spin in terms of rpm, and so working up in the zone with a high spin fastball makes it more likely that hitters won’t be able to square it up and less likely that the pitch will sail right into somebody’s wheelhouse.
That’s what happened in the first inning with Dickerson, but otherwise, eight of the 24 outs Samardzija recorded were via the fly ball. The Phillies just couldn’t pounce on many mistakes because he really didn’t make any,
He’s allowed just three runs in his last four starts and this afternoon, his fastball didn’t hit 94+. It was in the 91-92 range most of the day so, shockingly, the best analysis of what Jeff Samardzija did is this: he pitched. Like a pitcher. He didn’t chuck, hurl, or throw. That possible September rotation of Bumgarner, Samardzija, and Cueto could be interesting.
Kevin Pillar hit a career-high 15 home runs with the Blue Jays last year. He’s hit 15 with the Giants this year, including 10 home runs at Oracle Park, which by my estimate is five times more than all other Giants hitters combined.
How does he do it? Bat speed.
Pillar might be undisciplined and an easier out than most, but the speed with which he can whip a bat head through the hitting zone makes him more dangerous than your average Rowand. Oracle Park’s many unique properties include a live left field power alley that few have been able to access consistently over the years. Jeff Kent always stands out in my mind as the guy who could always find out. Hunter Pence had his moments, too, but Kevin Pillar has really made it like his personal F-Zero boost pad for fly balls.
Evan Longoria’s second 2-hit game of the series included this no-doubter in the bottom of the 2nd inning, a 2-run home run that gave the Giants the lead for good.
Longoria has managed to jump back and forth between looking like a player in decline and a player who’s plateaued, but with slightly above average major league skills still intact. Today was one of those good days.
Meanwhile, Buster Posey had another 0-fer. So did Brandon Belt. The Giants didn’t need them today, but maybe they’ve just figured out how to go on without them.