There are two general philosophies you can take with the San Francisco Giants as we near the one-month mark of the season.
The pessimist’s view as that this is a team in a perpetual state of closeness. The San Francisco Close But No Cigars. They’re not the team across the Bay, getting skunked on a nightly basis in uncompetitive and embarrassing fashion. Most of their losses could have been wins. Many of their losses should have been wins.
The bullpen has blown leads. The offense has shown a uniquely creative ability to find new ways to not score runners. Entering Monday’s game, they were third in the Majors in home runs hit, but only one team had fewer sacrifice flies.
For the pessimist, that’s who the Giants are. A pitching staff good enough to let the offense build a lead, but bad enough to reliably regurgitate that lead. An offense good enough to reliably get runs and put men on base, but bad enough to make a habit out of ruining good opportunities.
The optimist’s take is that the blown opportunities are not here to stay. Bad sequencing is generally bad luck. The bullpen probably won’t have an ERA that starts with a five all year long. Good health will result in better players, which should result in better play.
For the optimist, the Giants are a team with good hitters and good pitchers, and a run differential comfortably above that of the San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Cleveland Guardians. They’re a team that’s getting healthier, luckier, and better.
Only time will tell who’s right, and a repeat of last year’s 81-81 season would leave neither party feeling vindicated.
But Monday, in a series opener against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Giants gave fuel to both sides. And in the end, the optimist won out.
The game started the way so many frustrating Giants games have. The Giants loaded the bases with just one out in the first inning, thanks in part to the return of two players making their season debuts: Austin Slater hit a leadoff single, and Mitch Haniger drew a walk.
But Michael Conforto popped out, and Wilmer Flores struck out chasing ball four. We were left singing the usual praises — They had competitive at-bats! They forced Jordan Montgomery to throw 31 pitches! — which were accompanied by the familiar frustrations — They got no runs to show for it! They struck out again! They couldn’t do basic situational hitting!
In the second inning they put two runners on — albeit with two outs — and again left them there. In the fourth inning they put two more runners on, with just one out, but left them stranded once more.
The frustration was kept at bay only by the fact that Alex Cobb was dealing. He retired the first 10 batters he faced, and when he finally lost his perfect game on a Paul Goldschmidt double, he calmly went about cruising through the trouble, needing just 41 pitches to get through four innings.
But in the fifth he loaded the bases. It was a soft rally. There was an outfield single, an infield single, and what essentially amounted to an intentional walk.
The problem is, you’d seen this film before. And, in the wise words of the great Taylor Swift, you didn’t like the ending. You’ve seen the Giants starting pitcher pitch better than his counterpart, only for one ill-timed pitch to ruin his day, while the Giants hitters flubbed opportunity after opportunity. If you’re the aforementioned pessimist, you were fully prepared for that.
But no. A year after Cobb’s excellent pitching was spoiled by a defense that he couldn’t trust, he stuck with the pitching that’s gotten him to this point, and trusted his defense ... and, as has been the case so much of this year, J.D. Davis rewarded that trust.
There was more of the same in the sixth. Cobb allowed a one-out single, got a double play ground ball, and nearly threw it into center field, only for David Villar to not only save the error, but still turn the double play.
The entire thing took about two seconds, but you still had enough time to feel the emotional chaos of the team letting you down.
The tide was shifting. The offense had fulfilled the pessimist’s vision of being just good enough to frustrate you, but Cobb and the defense had channeled the optimist’s positivity and reminded you that sometimes you don’t have to throw away a good thing.
And in the bottom of the seventh inning, the tables had turned fully. Mike Yastrzemski had reached base on an error to lead off the inning. Other teams make mistakes, you found out. What a cool thing!
The Giants, in search of their first big hit of the day, found one in the form of a Joey Bart double, putting runners at second and third with no outs.
It was costly, though, as Bart came out of the game with ouchies in his groin (that’s the medical term). It doesn’t seem serious, but with Blake Sabol the only other catcher on the roster, an IL stint seems likely.
The Cardinals intentionally walked Joc Pederson to load the bases, and after Thairo Estrada struck out, you started to side eye the pessimist again. Maybe they’re on to something, those annoying pests.
But no. Haniger, the local kid making his San Francisco debut, found the situational hitting that has avoided the Giants for much of the year, and hit a ball plenty deep enough to score a run on just the fourth sacrifice fly of the season for the team.
Mitch Haniger gives the Giants the lead pic.twitter.com/09QkoAFcDF— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) April 25, 2023
A tense 1-0 lead it was, and in the time it took you to fret about whether or not the bullpen could hold such a frail lead, Davis cut a ball through the cool night air and deep into the bleachers.
Suddenly it was 4-0 and Cobb — who had thrown just 76 pitches to that point — got to come out for the eighth. And when he passed that test, he got to come out for the ninth. And when he passed that test, the Giants had won 4-0.
It was the second shutout of Cobb’s career, and the first in over a decade. It was the first complete game shutout by a Giants pitcher since Anthony DeSclafani on June 11, 2021. DeSclafani had two shutouts that year, and this was the first Giants shutout by a non-DeSclafani pitcher since 2018 when it was ... you guessed it ... Chris Stratton.
At 9-13, the Giants need to win more games before we point out how much better they are than last year’s .500 squad. But — and I mean this as a compliment to Cobb, not an insult — Cobb didn’t look different tonight than last year. It was the same guy: limited strikeouts, limited hard contact, keeping batters uncomfortable, and trusting his defense.
It’s just that that so far this year trusting his defense has paid off.