PITTSBURGH -- Alex Cobb’s first season with the Giants largely has been pockmarked by misfortune.
Despite flashing some of the best stuff of his career, Cobb entered Sunday with the largest gap between his actual ERA (5.73) and his expected ERA (2.06) in the Majors. He’s also been slowed by injuries, most recently missing 13 games with a neck strain that he suffered earlier this month in Miami.
Still, the Giants view Cobb as a core piece of their starting rotation, and he took a step forward by returning to the mound for the first time since May 29 in a 4-3 walk-off loss to the Pirates on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park.
Cobb, who was working on a pitch count after being activated from the injured list on Sunday morning, tossed four innings on 60 pitches, with the only damage coming via a pair of solo shots from Hoy Park and Jack Suwinski. The 34-year-old veteran allowed four hits, walked one and struck out two before giving way to lefty Sam Long in the fifth.
“I think it was solid after a long layoff,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “First and foremost, he came out healthy. I know he’s not going to be happy not coming out of the game with a lead. But he got through exactly where our pitch count was for him today. We didn’t really want to go even a few pitches above 60. He got up four times. He had his velocity and maintained his velocity throughout. He gave up the two solo home runs, but for the most part, I thought he did a really nice job for us.”
Long surrendered another solo shot to Suwinski that put the Pirates ahead, 3-2, in the sixth, but the Giants tied the game on Thairo Estrada’s homer to left field off Pittsburgh closer David Bednar in the top of the ninth. Still, San Francisco ultimately fell short of a three-game sweep, as Suwinski responded with his third home run of the game, a walk-off blast off Tyler Rogers in the bottom of the ninth.
“Obviously, a monster day,” Kapler said of Suwinski. “Especially impressive against Rog. I think [Rogers has] given up one home run against a left-handed batter on his slider in his entire career. That’s a pretty long time. I think he has two home runs given up to a left-handed batter, period, in his career. He’s pretty good at avoiding that outcome. I think Suwinski was just lightning-hot right there.”
The long balls were also uncharacteristic for Cobb, who entered Sunday averaging 0.55 home runs per nine innings dating back to last year, the lowest rate in the Majors (minimum 120 IP). Both blasts came on sinkers in the upper third of the strike zone, marking the first time he’d allowed more than one home run in a start this season.
Still, there were positive takeaways, as well. Cobb needed only 10 pitches to post a 1-2-3 first inning, opening his outing with a three-pitch strikeout against Pirates leadoff hitter Ke’Bryan Hayes. He also continued to display a bump in velocity, topping out at 96.1 mph with his sinker and 92.8 mph with his splitter.
“Whenever you have a long layoff, you hope your stuff returns to normal,” Cobb said. “The velocity was there. The other pitches, I’ll get a good work week in and find that minor movement that gets more of the depth that you’re looking for.”
The Giants are hoping Cobb will be able to build on the outing and emerge as another veteran pillar among their starters, who have now allowed two or fewer runs in eight of the club’s last nine games. Cobb, who also missed time with a right adductor strain earlier this year, is certainly eager to contribute now that he’s healthy.
“It’s just exciting to get back out there and compete again,” Cobb said. “It feels like it’s been a month since I’ve been out there. Whenever you’re hurt or on the IL, you feel like a burden. You’re taking up space and not contributing at all to the team.”
For the first time since April, the Giants appear close to having their top five starters back in the rotation, as Anthony DeSclafani is likely to rejoin the pitching staff during the club’s upcoming series against the defending World Series champion Braves. DeSclafani made only three starts before landing on the IL with a right ankle injury, but his return should also help fortify a rotation that has the potential to be among the best in the Majors once it’s back at full strength.
“I don’t think we’ve really had a stretch where the starting five have been pitching together,” Cobb said. “I felt like we showed that in Spring Training, how the potential is there for us to rattle off a quality outing every single night and give our team a chance to win. That’s what we’re doing right now. It’s going to be nice to jump in and be a part of that and hopefully keep that streak going.”