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Home runs + walks > just home runs

It’s just simple math, really.

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Michael Conforto blowing a kiss while rounding the bases Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Growing up means ... many things. You can insert your own adage or aphorism or what have you. Everyone has their own saying or epiphany relating to when they knew they were an adult.

I just searched “growing up means” on Twitter to try and prove a point. See, look at these realizations, just from the last week:

Yes, agreed.

Absolutely, 100% co-sign.

I don’t necessarily agree, and I have questions about red paint mayonnaise sauce, but you do you, and points for the ironic trademark symbol, a trope I commonly dabble in, as You People™ know all too well.

Incorrect, but it was a question not a statement, so no hard feelings.

What? No. What’s wrong with you people (not You People™, I hope).

Anyway, you get the point. I got sidetracked by the demonic rabbit hole that Elon Musk spent Bolivia’s GDP to further destroy.

For me, growing up means realizing that defense is as fun as, or even more fun, than offense. That a high and tight fastball setting up a hard slider low and away is every bit as entertaining as a hanging slider getting smacked 450 feet into the night sky.

So I was pretty excited for Tuesday’s pitching matchup between the San Francisco Giants and the Minnesota Twins. It featured two wily old veterans who, after falling on tough years, have masterfully refurbished their careers with two of the most analytically-inclined organizations in baseball (sadly, the same fate does not appear in the cards for our old friend Mason Saunders).

For the Giants it was Alex Cobb, who entered the game leading the league in ERA. For the Twins it was Sonny Gray, who entered the game leading the Majors in ERA.

Beyond the career parallels, beyond the nouns-for-last-names thing, and beyond being really good at the most important thing a pitcher can do (preventing runs), Cobb and Gray have had similar years. Which is to say they’ve both made a killing by keeping the ball on the ground and in the ballpark.

Cobb is better at the former, with a sky-high ground ball rate of 62.4% which leads the Majors; only two other pitchers sport rates above 56% (one of those two is Logan Webb). Gray, by contrast, is “only” at 47.5%, a mark that is still 18th-best out of 69 qualified pitchers, and better than all but two teams (the Giants, not surprisingly, being one of those two).

Gray is better at the latter, entering the game somehow having not allowed a single home run on the year, in 49.1 innings pitched. Cobb did not have the impressive donut, but he had only given up three big flies in 51 innings, and one of those came in Mexico City. His home runs allowed per nine innings was seventh-best in the Majors.

And, just to play into the narrative, the Giants entered the game sixth in the Majors in home runs hit, with just two more dingers than the No. 7 team ... the Twins.

It seemed the game would be defined by which dinger-mashing offense could break through against a dinger-suppressing wizard. Or perhaps which homer-reliant offense could find, for lack of a less grim idiom, an alternate way to skin a cat.

An answer flirted with appearing right out of the gates. Well, not right out, as that would have resulted in the Giants scoring in the first, as they did on Monday night en route to a 4-1 win.

Instead, it appeared in the bottom of the first. After Cobb allowed a one-out single to old friend (and late replacement) Donovan Solano, and after he got the second out of the inning, he hung a splitter over the plate to Byron Buxton. In Cobb’s defense, Buxton is 2-13 with no extra-base hits this year against offspeed pitches, per Statcast. The man lives to see full-fledged fastballs, not hocus pocus mediumspeedkindaquickbutnotfastperseballs.

But hanging a pitch to someone who bats cleanup for a reason is still hanging a pitch to someone who bats cleanup for a reason, and Buxton did exactly what he was supposed to do with it.

Just like that, the Giants were behind in a race where one homer and two runs felt like the finish line. They trailed 2-0 to a pitcher with a 1.64 ERA. Gray was going to pitch nine innings. The Giants were going to hit zero home runs. They were going to score 1.64 runs and lose 2-1.64 which, on the bright side, would be a scorigami, which is pretty hard to come by in baseball.

Cobb settled in after that, though you weren’t sure it mattered. He faced the minimum in the second inning, working around an error by getting a double play. He faced the minimum in the third inning, working around a single by getting a double play. He cruised through the fourth, giving up just an infield single (to Buxton, naturally ... his first hit went 408 feet; his second hit went two feet. We golfers call that a perfectly played par 3 birdie.).

The Giants were doing diddly squat against Gray, but you could still appreciate the performance from Cobb. Adulting and whatnot. And then in the fifth he made another mistake, hanging a 1-2 splitter to Michael A. Taylor, who is somehow just 32, despite debuting on the Nationals team that the Giants beat en route to the 2014 World Series (though Taylor was left off the postseason roster).

Taylor was batting ninth, unlike Buxton. It’s amazing what the brain can process in a split-second of sports action, but the 60 feet that Cobb through the ball was enough for you to realize with a pit in your stomach that he threw a hanger, then find your optimism that it was the ninth-place hitter this time, and it wasn’t a sure thing that he’d punish it.

He punished it.

The Twins led 3-0, and now the Giants would lose 3-1.64, which is still scorigami, but less interesting. If you’re going to lose, you want to lose by less than a run. It’s just better that way. I already had my headline written, and it was a palate cleanser for all you folks already tired of the Casey Schmitt puns: A Gray day.

But while the Giants had done very little against Gray, they had quietly worked the counts and watched his pitch number rise. He entered the sixth inning with nary a scratch, but with 87 bullets already emptied from his arm.

J.D. Davis led off the inning and drew a six-pitch walk. It was the Giants first leadoff runner of the game. Michael Conforto followed, and watched with his bat on his shoulder as Gray threw four consecutive fastballs, all 91-92 mph. Three missed the zone, and on a 3-1 pitch Gray came forth with a fifth fastball at 92 mph. Giving a hitter as locked in as Conforto four chances to calibrate his timing is the type of gift usually reserved for birthdays, and Conforto blasted the ball the other way, clearing the head of left fielder Willi Castro for a double.

It wasn’t the first time the Giants had runners at second and third. It had already happened twice in the game, but each time there had been two outs. There was no chance for a sacrifice. More presciently, there was no opportunity for a batter to pick up a teammate.

But now they had runners at second and third with no outs, and an opportunity to capitalize. Up came Mitch Haniger, who still hasn’t hit a home run on US soil this year, but whose at-bats have gotten increasingly better. He fell behind 1-2, fouled off a tough pitch, then spat on three quality breaking balls.

Suddenly the bases were loaded with no outs. It was a prime opportunity to, at the very least, get back into the game.

At this point Gray’s pitch count was up to 105, and that was enough. He may have pitched brilliantly, but the Giants — as they often do — had made him work, and would face a struggling Twins bullpen while still having 12 outs to play with.

The Twins brought in lefty Jovani Moran and Gabe Kapler, sensing that it was now or never, started to unload the bench like those commercials where the Marines go jumping out of the butt of an airplane in rapid succession.

Schmitt replaced the struggling Mike Yastrzemski, whose earlier single made him 1-20 since returning from the IL. Schmitt got the pitch he was looking for, a hanging changeup, and got juuuuust under it, popping it up aimlessly and harmlessly to shallow center field.

Wilmer Flores replaced lefty Blake Sabol, and watched Moran fire three straight mid-90s fastballs to make the count 1-2. The fourth pitch was an 83-mph changeup and Flores swung right through it. Gray took notes from the dugout.

Just like that, the Giants had two outs and were at the back third of their defensively-focused lineup. Sometimes it just ain’t your day.

Up came catcher Patrick Bailey, still so new to the big leagues that his helmet is as shiny as the ones they serve you $22 nachos in at the ballpark. Against a lefty, Bailey was forced to bat from his weak side of the plate. Moran fired off four straight fastballs. Bailey took all four of them. The ump quietly murmured where each pitch had missed, and Bailey removed his arm gear and trotted to first, while Davis sauntered home to score the first Giants run.

Yes, a four-pitch walk is a gift. But a rookie enters such a position dreaming of hitting the go-ahead grand slam, or at the very least, the game-tying double. He dreams of lifting his teammates up.

To take that walk, in just your 14th career plate appearance, is impressive. And it made the score manageable. And it kept the line moving.

The Twins then got perhaps a bit too cute for their playground. After Bryce Johnson was announced as the pinch-hitter for Brett Wisely, Minnesota went back to the bullpen, bringing in righty Brock Stewart.

You could understand the thinking. Johnson, like Bailey, is a switch-hitter with a clear strong side, only his is the left side. A righty is an advantage and, after all, Moran had just delivered a four-pitch walk.

But Johnson, respectfully (and relative to the average Major League hitter), is not good from either side. Sure, his .616 OPS against lefties is better than his .356 OPS against righties but ... it’s still a .616 OPS. And Stewart had already walked nine batters in 12 innings (though in fairness, three of those were intentional).

You can see where this is going. Stewart couldn’t find the strike zone to save his soul, and Johnson became the second consecutive switch-hitting rookie to draw a two-out walk with the bases loaded from his weak side.

That brought up LaMonte Wade Jr. who you kind of expected to draw a walk, since that’s what he does, and that was the trend of the inning. But after jumping to a 2-0 lead in the count, the ump stole ball three from Wade, and that was all the momentum Stewart needed to suddenly find the strike zone and retire Wade.

But the Giants were in it. They’d surpassed Gray’s ERA in just six innings, and knocked him out of the game to boot.

And Cobb was still doing his thing. Sensing the momentum, he worked extra quickly in the bottom half of the inning, and set down the side on just 10 pitches (aided by a delightful web gem courtesy of Wade). He sent the offense right back onto the field.

They didn’t disappoint. Thairo Estrada led off the inning with a double, giving them their second leadoff runner of the game, and the tying run in scoring position. With one out, Conforto stepped to the plate. He looked up at the mound, and for the first time all night he didn’t see Gray, destroyer of all home run dreams. Instead he saw Jorge López, a very talented pitcher who had the very unlucky distinction of being, in this moment, merely Not Sonny Gray.

Conforto let ‘er rip.

From there it was smooth sailing. The Giants are playing well enough that even a one-run lead felt safe, perhaps because the manner in which they achieved it. Cobb eased through the seventh. Scott Alexander, aided by some fantastic infield defense, had a 1-2-3 eighth inning. Camilo Doval stared down Buxton and made him look silly, striking him out on a 101-mph cutter. He also hit a batter with two outs and two strikes, but was brilliant otherwise, striking out the side.

The Giants lost the battle of home run suppressant pitchers. Cobb gave up two, while Gray gave up none. But Cobb made it through seven innings, needing 10 fewer pitchers than Gray needed to get through five. And unlike the Twins, the Giants offense found other ways to score ... until Gray was gone, and the long ball was allowed out of its cage once more.

The 4-3 win moves the Giants to .500 for the first time since the sixth game of the season. They’ve won seven of their last eight games, and they’ve won three consecutive series, against three good baseball teams.

But perhaps best of all is that it looks sustainable. They’ve diversified their ways of producing offense. The bullpen is starting to look like an asset rather than a slow (or sometimes rapid) death march. Conforto is looking like the middle of the lineup slugger that we have every reason to believe he is.

The Giants are winning like a good baseball team. They’re playing like a good baseball team. And best of all, they’re looking like a good baseball team.