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Michael Conforto saves the day, the Giants, and your hair

With an assist from Camilo Doval.

Michael Conforto celebrating with J.D. Davis Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The San Francisco Giants did not get off to a good start on Wednesday against the Miami Marlins. Which, bizarrely enough, constituted a good start.

Perhaps you remember my recap of Tuesday’s loss. If not, here’s the refresher: the Giants had lost five straight games. In all five of those games, they scored the first run. In four of those five games, that run came in the first inning. In the other, it came in the second inning.

So when Thairo Estrada led off the game with a single, you kind of tilted your head to the side and winced. And when Darin Ruf drew a one-out walk, you grimaced.

Your head knew one thing to be true: scoring runs is always good. Scoring runs in the first inning is always good. Scoring runs in the first inning to take a lead is always good.

But your heart has watched too much baseball for too many years, and absorbed too much poetry in the form of cork and rubber spheres being smashed by wooden cylinders. Sometimes a good thing is a bad thing.

So when Ruf was picked off at first by the catcher, and J.D. Davis looked both hapless and helpless striking out, you breathed a sigh of relief. Your head lectured you for this, but you did it nonetheless.

And in the second inning, when the Giants went down meekly in order, you were again relieved.

Now they could try to win the game, even if you acknowledged that striking first would still scare you, even if it occurred in the 22nd inning (would be hard to win without striking first if it made it to that point, you reminded yourself, but Rob Manfred is making things up on the fly ... perhaps the Giants could keep the game going long enough to encounter some new rules).

And so a pitching duel ensued. Alex Cobb looked like Alex Cobb from last year, which is to say absolutely fantastic. Trevor Rogers looked like Alex Wood from yesterday, which is to say he was very good until he suffered an unknown injury and left the game early.

That came in the fourth inning, when the Giants finally broke through. Wilmer Flores led off the inning with a single, and Ruf waited six pitches to finally get a fluttering changeup, which he tattooed deep to left field.

Perhaps that ball should have been caught, but perhaps Ruf was being rewarded for the rare situation where not playing at Oracle Park was damaging to him.

That was the last pitch that Rogers threw, and the Giants, ecstatic to finally face a righty in George Soriano, jumped at the opportunity. Davis singled, and there were runners at the corners with no outs. David Villar, struggling all series, scorched a liner that found a mitt. Mike Yastrzemski struck out but Joey Bart drew his first walk of the year to load the bases.

It was here where Gabe Kapler had to make a call. Down so many right-handed hitters, the Giants already had Yaz and LaMonte Wade Jr. in the lineup against a lefty starter. With a righty now on the mound, they had limited options to play matchups. Heliot Ramos was due up, and the lefties available in the dugout — Brandon Crawford, Blake Sabol, and Brett Wisely — had combined to hit 15-91 with 35 strikeouts this year.

So Kapler left Ramos — not exactly destroying the baseball, either — in the game, and even though he grounded out you could support the move. Especially with a lead, and the defense that Ramos has been saying.

But the lead wouldn’t last, Ramos’ defense be damned. As Cobb was reminded in the fifth inning, there’s no defense for hitting the ball where they ain’t.

And so the Marlins scored a run after they stacked three singles on top of each other, the first with an expected batting average of .210 and the second at .320.

But it could have been worse. The inning ended with the bases loaded, when J.D. Davis made a delightful play for the final out, continuing to solidify his wild turnaround: I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that you could make the case for Davis as one of the five worst defensive players in all of baseball last year, and one of the five best defensive third basemen in baseball this year.

The Marlins had tied the game, and there was one thorn in the side of the Giants belly: from the start of the fifth to the end of the 10th, the Giants failed to record a single hit (or a double hit, or a triple hit, or a ... I’m sorry). A Ramos walk and a ball to the elbow of Bart were the only baserunners the Giants were able to pick up in that time.

But the bullpen, perhaps seeking to make a statement after being awful for the first few weeks, was locked in. Cobb came out after five innings (with eight strikeouts!) and John Brebbia, Scott Alexander, and Tyler Rogers combined to get deep into the ninth inning with hardly a concern. But after Rogers gave up back-to-back two-out singles in the ninth — putting the walk-off run in scoring position — it was time to call in the big guns: Camilo Doval.

He and Jazz Chisholm Jr. put together a battle worth rewatching (especially given how it ended), with Chisholm finally flying one out to send the game into extras.

Extras are better than losing, but the two have been synonymous for the Giants this year. They’d lost both extra-inning games, while scoring the Manfred Man just once in four innings.

You saw how the 10th might play out. It started mildly encouragingly. With Bart on second, Ramos hit a ground out to the right side that moved the runner over. Ramos surely would have preferred a hit, but I applaud the approach. The Giants have spent all season hitting grounders to the left side when runners are on second, and the youngster was clearly trying to push it the other way to ensure that, at worst, he ended up with the equivalent of a bunt.

Which he did. Unfortunately it meant Wade was tasked with trying to put a ball in the air against a lefty, and he put it in the catcher’s mitt instead. Then Estrada did the same, and suddenly the Giants were firmly against the wall.

Enter one of the more heroic innings of the young season by two young players whom the Giants are banking on playing vital roles this year: Doval and Bart.

The inning began when Doval induced a weak fly out. The Giants then called for an intentional walk, an easy and obvious decision given that Luis Arraez, one of the hottest hitters in the world, who happens to be a lefty, was due up, the trailing run didn’t matter, and a walk created a force play.

But the Marlins, searching for any advantage possible, immediately employed the double steal. Bart made a brilliant throw to third, but perhaps it was a case of being too brilliant, and the ball was ejected from Davis’ mitt as Chisholm slid face first into it.

Danger time.

The Giants called for a second intentional walk to keep the force play alive, but you were scared. A fly ball ended the game. A poorly-turned ground ball ended the game. A wild pitch or a passed ball — not exactly rare occurrences for a pitcher who dabbles in the triple figures — ended the game.

The first two options were never in play. Poor Bryan De La Cruz and Avisaíl García were utterly helpless against Doval’s borderline-criminal duet of 102-mph fastballs and erratically-swerving sliders.

But the third option — a wild pitch or passed ball — was very much in play. And if Bart felt like he had anything to prove to the Giants pitching staff, he damn sure proved it on Wednesday by catching a few rogue balls that were terrifying to watch from the laziness of my desk chair that I pawned off a neighbor for free.

Bart did his job — his tense and difficult job — and put the situation in Doval’s hands. Doval was ready. He made De La Cruz later than I am to every social engagement on a letter-high 101-mph cutter, then pounded the zone with high-90s heat to García, saving his devastating splitter for the last moment, and making a very good and very professional hitter look like a dad who had a few too many High Noons at his kid’s birthday party before trying his hand at the piñata.

On to the 11th.

The Giants were now 1-5 at scoring the Manfred Man and, after Flores started the inning with a ground out, had gone 25 consecutive plate appearances without a hit.

Not great, guys.

But the lament had been the same all day: without their full lineup, they were low on options. Without Mitch Haniger and Austin Slater, they were sorely lacking right-handed bats. With Michael Conforto unable to run, they were forced to play lefty hitters who should be strictly platooned, instead of those who can play everyday. With Joc Pederson on the IL, they were missing their biggest weapon when the opposing manager turns to righty.

So it was fitting that the second batter of the inning was Conforto, who had replaced Ruf as the designated hitter late in the game. It was a sight so rare to see — and a sign of the injuries facing the team — that it was the 11th inning and the Giants — kings of swapping out half their lineup in the fourth inning — had made just one line change.

Conforto starting the game on the bench while Wade flailed uselessly at lefties was a reminder as to why the Giants are struggling right now. And Conforto coming into the game to at least provide a few at-bats in critical moments was a reminder as to why the Giants are still optimistic about their offense.

Especially after he launched the first pitch he saw deep into the South Beach night.

It unlocked something. The Giants seemed to know they finally had a chance and couldn’t squander it. Villar — 0-8 with six strikeouts in the last two games — ripped a double, and Yastrzemski — who also struggled when pressed into action against a lefty — got a rare home run off one.

Suddenly it was a 5-1 lead.

The Giants still made you hold your breath. Doval would have returned for a 3-1 lead, but at 5-1 they turned to Sean Hjelle, who, after giving up a double and grabbing a strikeout, did the inexcusable thing by walking the tying run to the plate.

That forced Kapler to to turn to Taylor Rogers, which allowed me to tweet out my favorite meaningless stat of the young season.

Rogers messed around a little bit when he hit a batter to put the walk-off run at the plate, but then settled down and ended the game.

And so ends one of the more frustrating road trips in recent memory. But the consolation is that it hasn’t been frustrating because the Giants have been bad per se ... it’s been frustrating because they’ve tripped over the shoelaces of their very fancy shoes every day.

They’ve scored the first runs in seven consecutive games. They’ve handed leads to a bullpen that probably won’t end the year with an ERA in the high fives.

The frustration is that the wins are right there and the Giants haven’t grabbed them.

They grabbed one on Wednesday. It required the heroics of a player who should be back in a full-time capacity soon, and it required the heroics of a pitcher who thrives on heroics, and it required the heroics of a young catcher who saw the team acquire his potential replacement and responded the way they were hoping he would.

Maybe they’ll start grabbing them regularly.