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A turning tide

Or at least a really good win.

Joc Pederson celebrates while sitting on home plate Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

In the fourth inning of the San Francisco Giants game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night, Wade Meckler took a first-pitch fastball about one copy of Infinite Jest above the strike zone.

Home plate umpire Chad Whitson called it a strike.

It was only the fourth pitch of the game that Meckler had seen. The first was as close to hitting his elbow as it was to finding the strike zone; it was called a strike. The second kissed the strike zone the way a grapefruit kisses a can of Pamplemousse La Croix; it was called a strike. The third pitch was well out of the zone; he swung at it with the helpless desperation of a man who doesn’t understand why his so-called friends in the dugout hadn’t explained to him that there aren’t strike zones in the Majors, every pitch is a strike, damn it.

And then came the fourth. On paper, an innocent enough first-pitch strike. In reality, so much more.

Meckler was playing in only his second career game, so all he could do was shrug and wonder why he was being picked on. After all, in his debut on Monday, he had taken a called strike that was nowhere near the plate, and another that was a borderline pitch only in the strictest sense of the term. Sooner or later Ashton Kutcher was bound to leap out from behind Whitson’s catcher gear, with the hair and face of a 16 year old, to inform Meckler that he’d been Punk’d.

Kutcher did not, but Gabe Kapler did. He’d seen enough. His rookie was getting hazed and his lifeless team was sitting in a hospital bed flatlining while the doctors and nurses gabbed about Barbenheimer.

Kapler was ejected before taking the field, but then got his money’s worth, and you’d have to think that felt good for Meckler. Six plate appearances into his career — and just a few years after his college coaches advised him to transfer from Oregon State (spoiler: he did not) because there wouldn’t be playing time for him — his manager was standing before 26,000 people, on live TV, throwing a temper tantrum in his honor.

A well-deserved tantrum, I might add.

A manager ejection is a funny thing. It can happen for so many reasons, the bulk of them at least partially premeditated. Sometimes you’re trying to light a proverbial fire in a proverbial ass. Sometimes you’re trying to show support for someone. Sometimes you’re really just that ticked off.

If I had to venture a guess as to Kapler’s motive, it was all three.

I wondered if it might jumpstart the Giants offense, but Meckler struck out three pitches later. Wilmer Flores lined out. Joc Pederson grounded out. And suddenly four scoreless innings were in the books, with the Giants mustering just one baserunner off of old friend Zack Littell. They remained in it only because Jakob Junis had dealt four dazzling innings of his own with seven strikeouts, giving the team a clean slate for the fifth inning.

They went down in order again in the fifth. But as Blake Sabol rolled his head back in disbelief and dejectedly trotted back to the dugout following an inning-ending 388-foot out, the reality of the game was coming into focus. It was equal parts encouraging and frustrating.

The Giants had eight of the 11 hardest-hit balls of the game through five innings. Those eight balls had produced exactly zero hits.

There was Sabol’s aforementioned 388-foot flyout that left the bat at 102.3 mph. There was Pederson’s ground out the inning prior, slammed into the meticulously-raked dirt at 105.3 mph. Brandon Crawford started the third inning with a 98.5-mph, 367-foot flyout. LaMonte Wade Jr. ended the inning with a 96-mph, 317-foot flyout. In between them, Thairo Estrada scorched a 108.7-mph line drive directly into Isaac Paredes’ glove. All of that after Pederson and Patrick Bailey had 92.4 and 96.8-mph outs, respectively, in the second, with Flores blasting a 99.8-mph inning-ending grounder in the first.

The top of the sixth inning gave the Giants a touch of momentum that they hoped to carry into the bottom half of the inning. Sean Manaea had replaced Junis and dealt two sensational innings, the latter of which was highlighted by a delightful and silky smooth catch in center field by Meckler.

We turned the page to the bottom half of the inning, to find Estrada batting with one out and the bases empty. A keen baseball mind, Estrada had learned from watching the first half of the game that putting the ball in play was a futile game. No good would come of it.

So he put the ball over the fence instead.

I enjoyed that, obviously, but it was also a touch sad. You wanted the Giants rewarded for their hard contact peppered all over the field, and not giving in to the notion that clearing the fence would be the only way to score.

As if to snap me out of such a silly thought (just enjoy the home run, Brady!), Meckler came to bat one out later and roped another hard-hit ball (99.8 mph!) into center field for his first career hit.

That was enough to knock recently-converted-to-starter Littell out of the game, but in hindsight that was not the best move for the Rays. It only took one pitch from the bullpen for Flores to alter the course of the contest.

Suddenly it was game on. The Giants seemed inspired by their loud contact, rather than frustrated by it. It had the feel of the games in June, when each at-bat seemed to be the baseball equivalent of pulling a more outrageous piece from the Jenga board. Oh, you thought your hit was impressive? Watch THIS!

The inning ended there, and you’ll be shocked to learn that it was on a 96.5-mph Pederson flyout that traveled 370 feet, which was the softest hit ball in a stretch of six balls put in play by the Giants.

But at that point you felt the tide turning. The Giants no longer looked scared of trying to provide offense; they seemed to be embracing it.

It helped that the pitching was humming. Manaea — who pitched 3.1 sensational innings — needed just 13 pitches to get his offense right back out there for the bottom of the seventh. And they wasted no time picking up where they left off.

Michael Conforto led off the inning with a single which was — you guessed it — hit very hard. The hardest hit ball in play of the game, in fact, coming in at 108.8 mph.

A quick detour: while the young players are providing a necessary spark, the key to the Giants offense getting back on track lies with the proven, high-quality veterans getting back to their old ways. Conforto finished the game 3-4 with a double. In his last six games, he’s 10-22 with two homers, two doubles, four walks, and no strikeouts. If he is turning things around, the season is going to get a lot easier to watch.

After Conforto singled, Bailey walked. Then the Rays did the Giants a solid, with Yandy Díaz committing an error on a Sabol grounder that loaded the bases with no outs.

This has been their kryptonite lately. They seem to load the bases with no outs on a nightly basis, with an infuriating lack of situational hitting leading to no sacrifices, and a feckless lack of The Big Hit™ refusing to let a runner score.

It felt like a litmus test. Were the Giants really turning things around, or was I just getting caught up in the moment?

Crawford was first to audition. He put up a good fight, but then struck out swinging. You shifted in your chair.

Estrada was next to audition. He fought off a few pitches, then tapped one in the infield, with the Rays getting a force play at home for the second out.

Situational hitting: still ain’t got it.

It’s at this point in the movie where we visit an old baseball truism: you make your own luck. Analytically-minded people — or hell, anyone invested in what words mean — understands the silliness of that phrase. No, you do not make your own luck. Luck cannot be manufactured. Those who say you make your own luck merely have an underdeveloped sense of pattern recognition and are tricked into thinking correlation exists where none does.

Except in baseball that’s not really true. Perhaps you have to bend the definition of the word “luck” a teensy bit, but hell, if they didn’t want words to be malleable they would have made them out of something more concrete than noise, wouldn’t they have?

I’ve been thinking of this concept since Friday, when Heliot Ramos made his return to the Majors in a pinch-hit capacity in the ninth inning of the Giants eventual loss to the Texas Rangers. Ramos led off that inning with a double that saw him end up on third thanks to an error.

In truth, it shouldn’t have been a double. The ball should have been caught. But because Ramos hit one of the hardest baseballs put into play all season, Leody Taveras had a much slimmer margin for error to make the catch. Struggling all night with reads, but still making outs, Taveras went from needing to be good enough, to needing to be perfect. He wasn’t, and Ramos was rewarded with a double. Taveras shouldn’t have bobbled the ball when he picked it up. But seeing Ramos chug around first like a runaway truck down I-5, with above-average speed and his motor cranked to 110%, made Taveras realize he didn’t have much time to make a play. He rushed, he erred, and Ramos was rewarded with a third base.

That is what it means to make your own luck. When you hit the ball harder, when you run faster, when you put yourself in more three-ball counts, you decrease the margin of error for your opponent. Errors and misreads are made more often on hard-hit balls. Poor throws are made more often with fast runners on the bases. And so on and so forth.

It was fitting, then, that Ramos was on second base as the Giants desperately tried to scratch wins out of another seemingly-doomed bases-loaded, no-outs situation. Ramos had replaced Sabol as a pinch-runner, and was in scoring position as Wade stepped into the box.

Wade watched the first pitch from Kevin Kelly cut across the zone, and catcher René Pinto used it as an opportunity to try and one-up his defensive-wunderkind at third, Bailey. He threw the ball into the outfield.

It should have been an easy, simple, and straightforward run for the Giants. But Ramos, whose speed defies his figure in a way that can only be described as Young Frank Gore, read it perfectly, showed zero hesitation, and made it runs, plural.

It wasn’t the situational hitting they’d been searching for, or the last-ditch hit they’d been hoping would bail them out. They made their own luck.

From there, the Giants coasted on something that was so common in May and June, but has been so desperately lacking in the last few months: positive inevitability. They were going to win. You knew they were going to win. It was just a matter of by how much, and what cool things would happen between now and then.

Some cool things did, indeed, happen. Manaea handed a one-on, one-out situation to Tyler Rogers in the eighth, and the submariner needed to face just one batter to get his two outs. Luke Jackson punched out the side in the ninth inning, giving the Giants a shutout win with 15 strikeouts.

In between, they added on, and they sure had fun doing so. Meckler nabbed his second career hit to lead off the eighth inning, easily legging out a 15-foot single. On a day defined by hard-hit balls, Meckler used speed the Giants have been in short supply of to turn the softest-hit ball of the day into a hit.

You make your own luck.

With two outs and Pederson having taken Meckler’s spot at first on a fielder’s choice, Conforto bopped his double, which gave Joc the chance to put on a cardio show. Scoring required one of the most spectacular slides/Tetris impersonations of the season, such that Pederson seemed to motion that he was safe in an attempt to trick the umpire into believing it ... only for it to be true all along.

Bailey singled to score Conforto, setting the final score at 7-0, giving the Giants their largest margin of victory since June 17, when they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 15-0.

By adding one extra hit to the tally, Bailey was able to get an at-bat for Ramos. It seemed as though Ramos was bound for the thankless job of appearing as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement but never getting to hit. But his teammates rallied, and made sure he ended the day with an at-bat — just the 60th of his career, I might add.

If I told you he singled on a 106.9-mph grounder, would you believe me?