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One (inning) and done

The Giants lost to the Cubs in the first inning, then played eight more.

Alex Wood handing the ball to Gabe Kapler as he walks off the mound Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There was a sense of desperation in the air when the San Francisco Giants took the field for their Wednesday game against the Chicago Cubs. It wasn’t because they had lost five straight games, though that punctuated it. It wasn’t because they were in danger of falling to .500, exactly 50 days after they peaked at 13 games above .500, though that played a role.

It was because Alex Wood was starting.

That isn’t a knock on Wood. It’s just a read on the situation. Wood hadn’t started a game since getting shellacked on July 21. The Giants had bent over backwards to not start him for most of the year, spending large chunks of the season running out back-to-back-to-back bullpen games rather than start Wood (or Sean Manaea or Ross Stripling).

Now, with an additional pitcher allotted for the month, with a third starter in Kyle Harrison entering the fray and allowing the bullpen to be more liberally deployed, and with an off day awaiting them after their pre-airport hot dogs, the Giants found themselves turning to Wood when the game began.

Was it because they felt the bullpen needed a break after struggling through eight innings and six arms on Tuesday? Was it an admission that the bullpen games, a bizarre but mightily effective weapon for much of the year, were no longer viable? Was it in hopes that a veteran who is well respected in the clubhouse and has seen some things during his 11-year career — including a world championship — would provide the necessary grit and Will To Win™ to pull the Giants up by their undies? Was it that his zero earned runs over his last five outings — spanning 9.1 innings — stands out so much against everyone else on the free-falling Giants that the team felt he had forced the issue in a way that must be truly perplexing to one Heliot Ramos? Was it what Gabe Kapler saw when decoding the coffee grinds in his morning cuppa at an established hipster Windy City beanery? Was it because Wood asked and the Giants, running on empty and with a shoebox for one of their wheels, couldn’t justify a no? Was it because of the bleak win-win in which Wood would either pitch well enough to help the team or pitch poorly enough that waiving him would be more palatable to the locker room and fanbase?

Was it all of the above?

Whatever it was, it was desperate. And desperation, while not inherently bad, is always telling.

And so it was fitting that Wood’s outing seemed to mirror the Giants slide. It thought about being good, and then it was bad, and then it walked to the doorstep of escaping, raised its hand to knock, got nervous and insecure, and departed in a hurry.

Wood retired the first batter he faced, then got ahead in the count 0-2 to Nico Hoerner before losing the batter and allowing a single. Ian Happ followed with a single of his own, signaling instant trouble. But Wood showed his veteran grit, striking out his former teammate and First-Team All-Giant Killer Cody Bellinger for a second out.

Then he walked Dansby Swanson on four pitches just so he could have the right to face Future First Ballot Giant Killer Seiya Suzuki, who was 6-9 with two homers, two doubles, and six runs batted in through two games in the series.

A few seconds later, a group chat died. Max Muncy sent the final text the chat would ever see. Should we add Seiya...? it read. Immediate thumbs up reactions from Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt signaled the end of the group chat, and a new one was born with Suzuki added to it. In the locker room afterwards, Suzuki would show his new messages to Bellinger, who pondered his omission. Is it because of the reports that the Giants will try to sign him this offseason?

Anyway, the second and third pitches that Wood threw to Suzuki were identical: low and in changeups at 85 mph that kissed the corner of the zone. That type of repetition is something that no one seems to employ when facing the Giants, and on the rare instances when they do, the ability to download the info and be prepared for the next pitch is something sorely lacking from San Francisco’s hitters.

Suzuki watched the first one flutter by the corner of the zone, aided by a generous ball call to make the count 1-1. He seemingly swung at the second one before Wood had even thrown it, as though he knew exactly what was coming. That’s not an accusation of sign-stealing — it’s admiration for people who play baseball better than the Giants players do.

The ball was roped to right-center field, and by the time Mitch Haniger dug it out of the ivy, Suzuki was on second and the Cubs had scored three runs. Not even the memory of Tuesday’s four homers was enough to lend you optimism that the Giants would reverse course in this game. Like I said, desperation isn’t inherently bad. But when it introduces itself as bad news with a firm handshake, it’s game over. All that’s left is to run around like a contestant in Guy’s Grocery Games, throwing as many silver linings into your cart and arms as you can find in two minutes.

Wood made short work of the second inning, but back-to-back third-inning doubles by Happ and Bellinger tacked a fourth run on, and sent Kapler to the mound with just one out recorded in the third frame.

As Wood walked off the mound I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d thrown his final pitch as a Giant. Tristan Beck has been optioned, and, if Wood is still around on Friday, Keaton Winn will likely join Beck in Sacramento so that Ross Stripling can be activated. Wood’s not good enough anymore to start, and he hasn’t taken to a bullpen role the way Sean Manaea has. He’s well-respected in the dugout, but is that enough to justify the use of a roster spot when Beck or Winn would almost surely help the team more in 2023, and playing them would incontrovertibly and emphatically be better in the long run?

We’ll see.

That’s not to pin the blame on Wood. The lefty wasn’t the problem, so much as he was a face glued firmly to the much larger problem. He was the symbol of desperation, the symbol of things not going according to plan, the symbol of there not being a backup plan, and the symbol of a team sinking with alarming velocity.

But the 8-2 loss? Wood was just one of many pieces.

Ryan Walker allowed the run Wood left on base to score. John Brebbia made his return after a nearly three-month absence, and the third pitch he threw was a hanging slider that Miguel Amaya — a ninth-spot hitter with limited power — put deep into the bleachers. Manaea let Bellinger add to his Giants scrapbook with a home run.

And, of course, the offense.

If the Giants were cruising, you could look at their game through the lens of poor sequencing, and determine that they merely got unlucky. But the Giants are not cruising, and so the logical conclusion shifts to the fact that they simply do not have It®, whatever It® might be.

Through six innings, the Giants had six hits. They spaced them out like an organized child preparing their school supplies. They used exactly one per inning and, as a result, didn’t score.

They found various ways to squander those runners, as happens in these situations. There were the poor plays, such as when Thairo Estrada was thrown out stealing to end the first inning, after an awful jump. There were the tear-your-hair-out-in-frustration plays, like when Haniger grounded into an inning-ending double play in the sixth. There were the are you friggin’ kidding me bouts of awful luck that come in the center of every order of a six-game losing streak gift basket, such as when Paul DeJong, on third base with just one out, broke home on a sharp grounder up the middle — as one should always do. But Austin Slater’s ground ball ricocheted perfectly off the mound to smack pitcher Jordan Wicks on the thigh where, instead of caroming off to the side like a normal baseball, it fluttered like a dead bird to his feet, allowing him a fairly routine throw home for the out.

Three of the six stranded hits were of the leadoff variety. Three went for extra-bases, as DeJong, Haniger, and J.D. Davis all smacked hard-hit doubles. You were frustrated. Frustrated at the Giants, frustrated at the Cubs, frustrated at baseball, frustrated at life.

As happens when losses mount.

They finally broke through in the seventh on a young rally, when Luis Matos singled and scored on a Casey Schmitt double. Schmitt advanced on a DeJong single, and later scored on a Joey Bart sacrifice fly. There was a sense of cleansing that they finally scored one of their many hits, but the reality was that everyone knew the game was over. These innings served merely to give the team something to build on for future games, but with only 22 future games remaining, it’s hard to invest much energy in such a task.

The eighth inning brought some poetry, or something. Camilo Doval, a victim of the Giants ineptitude, pitched in mop-up duty since he hadn’t appeared in a game since August 28. He had the lone good pitching outing, striking out two of the three batters he faced. The final batter? His 2017 A-ball teammate Alexander Canario, who highlighted the Giants 2021 trade for Kris Bryant, and who was taking the first at-bat of his MLB career.

Naturally that led to a ninth inning that yielded a hit but not a run. Hits in eight innings. Runs in just one.

If you want an ironic silver lining, it’s that the young players played well, right as the team is realizing that next year is more important, even if they’re in a close playoff race now. Bart had good at-bats in his first Major League game since mid-May. Matos and Schmitt both had two-hit games, and both look substantially improved over their earlier season performances. Schmitt, in particular, is making the adjustments the Giants asked him to make, and in his last seven games is now 7-21 with four doubles, a walk, and just five strikeouts.

On the broadcast, Kruk and Kuip noted that Schmitt got called back up in mid-August and that they don’t think he’s ever going back, and I’m inclined to agree. If there’s one thing I wanted to see in September, it was some young players beyond Patrick Bailey and Walker emerging as clear-cut Opening Day players for next year. If nothing else, Schmitt, Matos, and Harrison are looking like they’ll send us into the offseason with a little more clarity as to what next season’s team will look like when they kick things off with a March 28 game against the San Diego Padres.

That is, at least, a win in my book. But damn, is it too much to ask for a win in the books that actually count?