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Kevin Pillar launches Giants past Cardinals to end four-game losing streak

Jaylin Davis got his first major league hit and Buster Posey got on base five times, too.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Eight times in his career has Kevin Pillar had a 4-hit game. Four of those games have come with the Giants. The fourth was tonight. The fourth hit was this 440-foot beauty of a dinger.

It gave the Giants the last lead of the night in what wound up being a 4-hour, five minute game, the longest 9-inning game of the season. It came the night after the shortest 9-inning game of the year. It came after the Giants had blown a 4-0 lead, and after they used four pitchers to try and fail to maintain a tie. It ended a four-game losing streak. And check the date.

The conspicuous repetition of the number four in connection with Kevin Pillar tonight could be the result of a highly localized distortion in the space-time continuum and a past version of the Giants trying to send a message to their future selves to do something at some point that involves the number four.

Will Smith recorded a four-out save —

Sorry, where was I? This game was supposed to be a loss. With Madison Bumgarner on the mound, you would’ve been correct in coming into this one with a modicum of hope. After he mowed down the Cardinals in the first inning on just seven pitches and needed just 14 to get through the second, you might’ve felt like your faith had been rewarded.

Tyler Rogers got the win after blowing the save by giving up a double to Paul Goldschmidt, who had 4 RBIs on the night —

But Bumgarner didn’t just falter in the third, laboring through 28 pitches, he absolutely fell apart in the 5th and 6th innings. It was a situation similar to what happened to Jeff Samardzija on Sunday. Bumgarner wasn’t laboring from the start, but he was laboring soon after, and rather than pull him out when the situation was wobbly but manageable, Bruce Bochy decided to start him in the 6th inning after he’d already thrown 91 pitches through five. He’d throw just five more, and in that span, allowed a double and then a triple.

So, while we’re counting down the days until Bruce Bochy retires and Madison Bumgarner probably leaves, we’re also counting down the days we’re likely to see some head-scratching decisions like that. Even if Bumgarner is the ace and is fresh off a stellar August, that 3rd inning and the pitch count after five should’ve been enough to change up the thinking, especially if Bruce Bochy was prepared to use three relievers to get through an inning anyway.

We got a glimpse of what the bullpen sans Smith, Moronta, and Gott will be like next year and what a Bumgarner-less rotation will look like, too, even if it was Bumgarner affording us the preview. But none of that matters tonight. The Giants kept fighting back and won the game. I’m going to steal this line from the Cardinals’ broadcast —

They just don’t quit.

Paul Goldschmidt did what he’s always done to the Giants and delivered the knockout punch. But these Giants aren’t quite the 2018 Giants. Kevin Pillar is a difference maker. Mike Yastrzemski is a difference maker. Evan Longoria is a stabilizer. Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford are healthy enough to show flickers of the white hot fiery talent they used to be able to command at will.

There’s just enough there to make this team different. Incremental. Oh so small. But if you add it all up, the whole does become greater than the sum of its parts.

Jaylin Davis beat out a chopper to third and ducked under a high tag to get his first major league hit in the top of the 2nd inning. In the 5th inning, with pitcher Ryan Helsley firing 96 mph fastballs away and 89 mph cutters at the knees away, he coaxed a walk. Corban Joseph, claimed only yesterday, saw 23 pitches in five plate appearances. Will Smith opted not to throw his 93 mph fastball and instead work the slider as much as possible and got Paul Goldschmidt to chase for a strikeout in the 8th and then Harrison Bader to end the game.

It’s having players who can do these little things in the course of the game — and do them well — that adds up to success in a single game, a series, and then a season. Yeah, sure, there’s a lot of... not that-level of performance going on around all that, but the Giants aren’t simply plugging roster spots with Chase d’Arnauds and Alen Hansons.

Just because... let’s see that Davis “hit”.

A bit of plate discipline and speed. That’s a nice player to be able to call up for September. We saw on Paul Goldschmidt’s triple in the 5th when he and Kevin Pillar got crossed up that maybe Davis’s outfield defense isn’t going to be all that great... at least not right now. But, again, there looks to be some ceiling there. Some reason for excitement. That’s all we’ve got at this point!

There was a fly in the ointment, though. The game was weird. 39 players were used. It’s the curse of the September roster expansion. It’s the curse of a long season. And a good team (the Cardinals) against a team playing for pride (the Giants) that refuses to go down. I would like the rest of the season to not average four hours per game. Thanks.

Let tonight be a warning for you. These September games could be so much worse.

That won’t be the case next year when rosters expand to 28 in September, but for now...

I shudder.

The theme of the game wasn’t the number four or even old guys showing their past All-Star form. The theme was September Baseball. It’s just different.

Brandon Belt was pulled late in the game so he didn’t have to face a lefty. Brandon Crawford was not despite the same situation. Crawford also hit a towering home run to left centerfield that gave the Giants a 7-4 and that probably had more to do with it than anything else, but I want to point out that Belt being pinch hit for can be as bad as you need it to be.

The Belt Wars are over. They never even began. If the starting positions are: this player is good / this player is not good, then the side most likely to “win” the war would be the side that never believed in the first place. So, in that sense, what happened tonight just proved what people down on Belt have always believed. For those who felt otherwise, Belt’s warning track power and penchant for strikeouts in key spots are more than a blemish. So long as he’s on the roster, he’ll have expectations. So long as he continues to be thirtieth-worst hitter in baseball the sixth-least valuable position player in baseball, he’ll be a huge disappointment and hurdle for the team to overcome.

At this point, the value is in what the Giants have, not what they had. They have some fun players and interesting potential and a nimble front office that should inspire confidence. What they don’t have is an .850 OPS guy in Brandon Belt. Not anymore. He’s not the only one, of course, but he’s the one who draws the most ire.

Here’s the play that gave Brandon Crawford an opening to get his big hit:

Paul DeJong makes this error the night after his miraculous cue shot single. Baseball humbles, of course, but it also rewards talent that never gives up. Brandon Crawford had an ugly strikeout earlier but adjusted in time to mash this gorgeous bomb:

Crawford has been the third-worst hitter in baseball this year. It was fun to see him have a good game.

Look, there’s no way I’m saying Kevin Pillar and Marcell Ozuna are equals, but I want to compare them just to give you one positive about Madison Bumgarner’s outing. Pillar is a reactive hitter. There’s no plan. He’s not thinking about what the pitcher is going to throw next — he’s reacting to where the pitch is thrown and he has the bat speed to handle plenty of different pitch types.

Ozuna is much the same in terms of bat speed, but he also has a plan at the plate (career .330 OBP). In the 3rd inning, Bumgarner faced Ozuna with the bases loaded and two outs. Ozuna’s home run last night was the deciding factor. Ozuna is one of the Cardinals’ best hitters. This was a dangerous spot. Right away, Bumgarner got down 2-0. Here’s how the rest of the at bat looked:

Pitch #4 was an eye-level changing breaking ball, setup by that fastball up and away. It broke back from that same general plane as the fastball. Ozuna let it go. Pitch #5 was a fastball that was overthrown and wound up being ball three. High and away. It was both a tease and a setup. If Ozuna locked onto pitch #4, he might go after #5 if he’s looking location. Pitch number six down and in was to feed Ozuna’s zone again: Bumgarner was setting him up by playing along.

Look at the pattern:

#1 — down and in
#2 — up and away
#3 — down and in
#4 — up and away
#5 — up and away
#6 — down and in
#7 — down and “in”

That #5 pitch broke the back and forth pattern, but it also might’ve been a bit of performance art on Bumgarner’s part. On the broadcast, Shawn Estes remarked that Bumgarner might’ve had a little extra “grunt” behind the pitch. It put in the back of Ozuna’s mind that that’s where Bumgarner wanted to get Ozuna out. Ozuna wasn’t going to let him. Bumgarner and Posey knew that and so they stayed where Ozuna wanted but then suddenly stopped looking.

Back to that Ozuna-Pillar comp: they’re dangerous in different ways. Giovanny Gallegos fooled Pillar with a slider but then stuck to his own strength and tried to power a fastball by him. Pillar always sits fastball. Ozuna makes adjustments. They both have dangerous power. Bumgarner and Posey used Ozuna’s own zone judgment against him.

It was another moment in this long list of little moments where the vets showed their mettle and that they still had some of the stuff that made them the players we’ll always remember.