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'Uphill' battle: 1st-inning woes sink SF again

@mi_guardado
April 20, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Hours before the Giants’ series opener against the Pirates Friday, retiring manager Bruce Bochy was asked to reminisce on his favorite memory at PNC Park as he prepared to begin his final swing through the Steel City. The decision was a relatively easy one for Bochy: The Giants’

PITTSBURGH -- Hours before the Giants’ series opener against the Pirates Friday, retiring manager Bruce Bochy was asked to reminisce on his favorite memory at PNC Park as he prepared to begin his final swing through the Steel City.

The decision was a relatively easy one for Bochy: The Giants’ 8-0 triumph over the Pirates in the 2014 National League Wild Card game. Madison Bumgarner started for the Giants that day and delivered a four-hit shutout, kicking off a historic string of postseason dominance that earned him World Series MVP honors and carried San Francisco to its third championship in five years.

Bumgarner returned to the mound at PNC Park Friday night, albeit a little later than expected following an 85-minute rain delay. But he struggled to recapture that peak form in a 38-pitch first inning, yielding four runs -- all of which came with two outs. Bumgarner didn’t allow any further damage over the next five innings, but the Giants couldn’t overcome his rocky start in a 4-1 loss to the Pirates.

“I can’t let that happen,” Bumgarner said. “I’ve got to make pitches right there to get the game going. I can’t put us in a hole like that to start the game off, especially throwing close to 40 pitches in the first.”

Bumgarner opened his outing with two quick outs before issuing a walk to Jung Ho Kang, who entered Friday batting .130. That opened the floodgates for the Pirates, who subsequently delivered four consecutive hits to build a four-run lead. It was an atypical inning for Bumgarner, not only because of the runs but also because of the type of contact he allowed. He surrendered four hard-hit batted balls, his most in any first inning tracked by Statcast since 2015.

“They weren’t all bad pitches, but a lot of them were,” Bumgarner said. “On top of that, you’ve got to give those guys credit. It’s tough with two outs in the first and nobody on and then to score four. That’s hard to do even in [batting practice]. Things were going their way right there a little bit, too.”

Bumgarner eventually settled in and allowed only two more hits before departing after throwing 100 pitches over six innings, but he received little help from his slumping offense. Pittsburgh’s early four-run outburst once again magnified the Giants’ glaring first-inning woes. They are the only team in the Majors to have not yet scored a run in the first inning this season. Their hitters have gone 6-for-66 (.091) with 21 strikeouts in 21 first innings in 2019.

“We’ve got to get these bats going,” Bochy said. “Not scoring early again, that’s making every game an uphill climb for us.”

The Giants didn’t get on the board until the eighth, when Yangervis Solarte singled and scored on an RBI single from Buster Posey. Solarte’s hit dropped in after Pirates center fielder Starling Marte and shortstop Erik Gonzalez collided while chasing the ball in center field. Both players went down hard and were forced to depart the game, with Marte riding a cart off the field.

While Bochy could try shuffling the top of the Giants’ order, there aren’t too many enticing alternatives at his disposal right now. Steven Duggar, who led off Friday, is batting .241 and has 29 strikeouts in 83 at-bats. Joe Panik is hitting .193, while Posey is hitting .217 with just two RBIs and no home runs.

“We tweak things a little bit,” Bochy said. “There’s not a lot that you can do at this point. I’m just saying, these are our guys. We’ll move them a spot or two, but wherever you’re hitting in the order, they’ve got to come through. You look at the back end of their order, they did a pretty good job today in that first inning.”

Maria Guardado covers the Giants for MLB.com. She previously covered the Angels from 2017-18. Follow her on Twitter.