Giants lose ground as bullpen falters

September 16th, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO -- By most accounts, the Giants’ bullpen has been one of the best units in baseball.

Giants relievers entered Wednesday with a 3.01 ERA, the best in the Majors, and have played a pivotal role in helping the club withstand injuries to Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto. Down to three healthy starters, the Giants have been bullpenning two out of every five games this month, mostly to good results. 

That didn’t prove to be the case on Wednesday night, though. Dominic Leone, Jarlín García and Zack Littell combined to give up five runs in the first two innings, and the Giants never recovered, resulting in a 9-6 loss to the Padres that snapped the club’s nine-game winning streak.

Games remaining: 16
• Standings update: 1 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers for first place in the National League West
• Magic number for division title: 14

Thairo Estrada, Kris Bryant, Steven Duggar and Brandon Belt homered, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Giants from losing ground to the Dodgers in the standings.

“It’s not ideal,” manager Gabe Kapler said of the biweekly bullpen games. “We have to make the best of it, and I think thus far we’ve been able to do that. Tonight was definitely not that. We just got beat.”

The Giants used six relievers to hold the Padres to one run on seven hits in Monday’s playoff-clincher, but the tactic faltered from the outset in the third game of this four-game series.

Leone, tapped to start for the second time in three days, allowed two of the three batters he faced to reach base before giving way to García, who coaxed a popup from Eric Hosmer but then walked Tommy Pham to load the bases with two outs. Adam Frazier followed with a two-run double, giving the Padres their first lead of this series.

San Diego continued to add on in the second, when Trent Grisham reached on a fielding error by shortstop Brandon Crawford to start the inning. Fernando Tatis Jr. kept the rally going with a two-out single, prompting Kapler to summon Littell, who gave up an RBI ground-rule double to Manny Machado and a two-run single to Hosmer that pushed the Padres’ lead to 5-0. 

The Giants pulled within two on solo shots by Estrada and Bryant and an RBI double by Evan Longoria, but lefty José Quintana allowed a two-out, two-run homer to Profar in the seventh that put San Diego ahead 7-3. San Francisco is now 3-2 in five bullpen games this month.

“I think it’s pretty tough to ask them to go out there like this multiple times a week, but they’ve done it,” said Belt, who launched his team-high 25th homer in the seventh. “They haven’t said a word, and they’ve gotten the job done, for the most part. Tonight we just couldn’t pick them up. We came up a little short.”

The good news for the Giants is that they might not be forced to use quite as many bullpen games down the stretch. Wood hasn’t pitched since Aug. 26 after testing positive for COVID-19, but he threw a 21-pitch live bullpen session on Wednesday afternoon at Oracle Park, putting him one step closer to rejoining the rotation.

Kapler didn’t rule out the possibility that Wood could return as soon as Saturday against the Braves, though the Giants will wait to see how the veteran left-hander recovers before finalizing any decisions.

“I still have a little cough and congestion and the fatigue part of it, but it’s getting better each day,” Wood said. “I was really pleasantly surprised by how I felt on Monday in my bullpen, as far as how I felt throughout post-recovery. I thought it was going to smoke me pretty good. I came out of it pretty solidly. I thought today was good. I thought my stuff was pretty good.”

Wood, who declined to discuss his vaccination status, said he began to feel ill shortly after the Giants flew back from Atlanta on Aug. 29. He woke up the next morning around 4 a.m. feeling sick and ultimately tested positive, which forced him to stay in bed for seven consecutive days as he battled a fever and chills. Wood’s wife, Suzanna, also ended up coming down with COVID-19, though he said she has since recovered.

While the illness led to a bit of deconditioning, Kapler said he believes Wood still has enough stamina to return as a starter for the Giants over the final couple of weeks of the regular season.

“He’s an important starter for us,” Kapler said. “When he’s ready to be back in our rotation, it’s a really good thing for us as a group. It’s not the easiest thing to get through with three starters, and the sooner we have Woody available for us on a regular basis, the better. That means getting him into a game as soon as he’s ready for that.”

Wood, for his part, is eager to get back and help the Giants try to hold off the Dodgers, his former club, for the NL West crown.

“This is the funnest time of the year,” Wood said. “To be in the hunt, to clinch a playoff berth, to be right in the hunt for a division title, there's just nothing better than that time of year. Our season is so long, it's longer than any season in professional sports, and so to get to this point and be where we are is really special. To have an opportunity to win the division after the Dodgers have won it for eight straight years and go to the playoffs, you couldn't ask for a better time.”