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A new era arrives as Casey Schmitt dazzles in debut

Casey Schmitt homered in his MLB debut as the Giants beat the Nationals 4-1.

Casey Schmitt running the bases after a home run Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

There are few things more beautiful about baseball than the precious gem that is an MLB debut, of which there were two during Tuesday night’s game between the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals, one for each team.

You don’t get this type of magic in most other sports debuts. When a basketball or football player is drafted, you expect to see them in the next game your team plays.

But in baseball? You get drafted and the odds are immediately stacked against you ever even having a debut. If you defy the odds and make it to the Majors, it’s under one of two circumstances. Either you toiled away in the Minors for many years and are now finally getting a shot, or you emerged as a hot prospect who flew through the system and everyone is eager to see you finally wear their team’s colors because you just might be the star that leads them to glory.

Both of those things are so cool.

Yet even relative to those high standards, Tuesday was a special game for the Giants. I don’t think I’m riding the high of a lovely victory when I state that this debut felt different.

This debut felt like the start of the future.

It was the debut of infielder Casey Schmitt, who got the call with just enough time to get about 60 of his biggest fans to the ballpark.

It wasn’t special because Schmitt — the No. 3 ranked prospect on our community list — is a guaranteed star, or even a guaranteed quality Major Leaguer.

No, it was special because it felt like the beginning of a new era of Giants baseball. An era that we’ve been waiting for for quite a while.

When Farhan Zaidi took over as president of baseball operations before the 2019 season, he refused to slap the “rebuild” label on the Giants. He insisted that the Giants would simply try to make the right move every day to improve their team.

The answer was a PR masterclass in vagueness, yet the implication was crystal clear: the Giants would try to win as many games as they could in the short term, without sacrificing the foundation they were building for the long term.

Fans have watched — some patiently, some not so much — as the Giants have tried to assemble that team, using those Ikea instructions that have odd pictures and no words. Depending on how much you value one magical 107-win season, and how much slack you cut a team for getting derailed due to the pandemic, Zaidi and the rest of the braintrust have either toed that line masterfully or fallen off it entirely.

Some fans hoped it would come sooner, but the desire among all factions of the faithful was the same: build a team that was good enough that, if a few youngsters started to arrive and shine, you’d have A Team on your hands.

We were just waiting for those youngsters so we could begin feeling what the future is like.

And then along came Schmitt.

Entering Tuesday’s game, only one player drafted or internationally signed by Zaidi had made his MLB debut. And with apologies to Cole Waites, it doesn’t really feel like the future is being ushered in when an 18th-round pick who projects as a sixth or seventh-inning reliever dons a uni for the first time.

But Schmitt was different. Schmitt was so different. Schmitt was different because he has the type of star potential that makes fans dream about watching him play not just every day, but every day in 10 years. Schmitt was different because he truly embodied the organizational philosophy. Schmitt embodied the organizational philosophy because he won the Minor League Gold Glove at third base last year, played second base for the first time in his career on Saturday, and made his MLB debut on Tuesday at shortstop. Schmitt embodied the organizational philosophy because he hit five home runs in three college seasons, yet the Giants have insisted that he was a swing path change away from tapping into power, which helped him launch 21 bombs last year alone.

He might win MVP. He might be a solid but not sensational starter. He might be a bench utility player. He might be optioned by the All-Star break and never make it back to the Majors. Only time will tell. But for the first time since Zaidi was hired four and a half years ago, it feels like the future he’s been trying to build is here. Schmitt is here, and the Giants have made it clear that he’s here to play a big role, not temporarily patch a hole before returning to Sacramento. The players who sandwiched him in the 2020 MLB Draft, Patrick Bailey and Kyle Harrison, will likely join him in the next month or two. Some players from the basket of Marco Luciano, Luis Matos, Vaun Brown, Grant McCray, and Carson Whisenhunt will probably be MLB regulars be the middle of next season.

It was hard not to get excited.

And then the game started.

The first inning was a shining example of how weird baseball can be. Logan Webb took the mound, and while he let two batters reach base, he never really felt in trouble and, indeed, he got out of it unscathed. But it was funny to think back to the Giants 5-1 loss the night before.

In that first inning, the Nationals hit everything Anthony DeSclafani threw at them. They had seven hits. They had five runs. You wanted to tear your hair out. Hell, maybe you did tear your hair out.

DeSclafani threw 21 pitches.

In this first inning Webb allowed a few baserunners that made you shrug. Ehh, you said. Your heart rate didn’t elevate. You didn’t feel the overwhelming urge to open your second beer just three batters into the game. He got out of it fine.

Webb threw 22 pitches.

It’s a weird game.

The Giants threw down a reverse Uno card in the bottom half of the inning, impersonating the Nats from the night before. Austin Slater led off and hit a hard enough ground ball off of Patrick Corbin to force an error. Thairo Estrada was next and missed a home run foul by a few feet, then went to the other side of the field for a single. Mitch Haniger was next with an absolute bullet of a double to score two runs.

When they finally recorded an out, it came when J.D. Davis hit a 105.8-mph liner right at a glove. And when the inning finally ended, Schmitt was left stranded in the on-deck circle, needing another inning before he could swing an MLB bat for the first time.

Nothing happened when he got that chance. He eagerly swung at the first pitch and fouled it off, then eagerly swung at the second pitch and grounded out. He’d have to wait for his first career hit.

The opportunity again came in the fourth inning, and Schmitt again eagerly swung at the first pitch he saw. This time he made clean contact, took on left-center field, and cleared the fences easily.

For those wondering, yes, he did get the ball back.

A first MLB home run is a beautiful thing. A first MLB home run in a first MLB game is a really beautiful thing. And a first MLB home run in a first MLB game for a player that is opening the door to the next era of Giants baseball? Well that’s such a beautiful thing that it might inspire writers to pen 800-word intros before even getting into their game story.

Not that I’d know anything about that...

Schmitt didn’t get many chances to show off the glove that made him such an intriguing prospect. Only two balls came his way: one a single that neither he, nor any shortstop would have a chance at getting, but he dove for style points anyway, and the other a routine ground ball that he handled calmly for a double play.

But he did get two more chances in the batter’s box, and he turned one of them into a single up the middle.

Along the way Webb seemed to flaunt his Houdini skills at Washington’s feckless offense. He allowed a leadoff single in the first and a one-out walk, but got out of it. He gave up back-to-back singles to start the second which, aided by an error, put runners at second and third with no outs. Then he struck out three straight batters. He gave up back-to-back singles in the third, too, but got out of it. He gave up a leadoff single in the fourth, but got out of it.

The Nats eventually broke through and put one run on the board, but Webb went seven innings deep and struck out seven, leading the Giants to a 4-1 win. It was an old school performance in which he pounded the zone and trusted his defense. He threw 105 pitches and 82 were strikes. He threw first pitch strikes to 23 of the 30 batters he faced. He challenged the Nationals hitters, dared them to hit the ball, and let his defense take care of the rest.

A defense that now has a new star, who received some special advice from Webb before the game.

There’s no telling how Schmitt will do, and there’s no telling how the rest of the prospects on the verge of their memorable debuts will do, either. We don’t know if the next era of Giants baseball will be a great one.

We just know that it’s finally started.