Hicks returns to starting role with authority

Lee hits first career home run, while Conforto is grand in big eighth inning

March 31st, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- waited two years for the chance to resurrect his long-held dream of being a Major League starter. If his season debut was any indication, he might not be leaving the Giants’ rotation anytime soon.

Hicks matched his career high by delivering five shutout innings in his first big league start since July 12, 2022, and and launched eighth-inning homers to power the Giants to a 9-6 win over the Padres on Saturday night at Petco Park.

Hicks allowed only three hits while striking out six and walking one in the 81-pitch effort, extending an impressive run from San Francisco’s starting rotation, which has given up only four runs over 17 innings (2.12 ERA) over the first three games of the 2024 campaign.

“I feel like I probably could have gone another one, but knowing I only threw 72 [pitches] last outing and knowing more crowd today, a little bit more energy, more amped up, I don’t want to force anything,” Hicks said. “I felt like we were in a good position to let the bullpen come in and work. I expect, if I’m at the same pitch count, to be going back out in the next outing and future outings as well.”

The Giants’ offense mustered only two hits against new Padres right-hander Dylan Cease, including an RBI double by Tom Murphy, but they broke the game open by erupting for six runs off lefty Tom Cosgrove in the top of the eighth.

Lee kicked off the big inning by blasting his first career Major League home run, a solo shot that left his bat at 104.4 mph and traveled 406 feet out to right-center field. After rounding the bases, Lee immediately pointed to the stands, where his family -- including his father, KBO legend Jong Beom Lee -- proudly pumped their fists and exchanged hugs in a show of jubilation.

“That’s a pretty tough lefty to hit his first home run off of,” manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s been impressive across the board to this point.”

Lee, who traded three autographed balls and a hat to a Bay Area family in exchange for his first-homer ball, has now hit safely in each of his first three games with the Giants, going 4-for-12 with four RBIs out of the leadoff spot.

“Huge spark,” Conforto said. “He’s incredible. We love watching him hit. Everybody’s watching him when he’s up there. His discipline, his eye at the plate, his ability to stay on pitches, stay through the middle of the field. Obviously, we saw a little bit of power – a lot of power – if he gets the right pitch. He’s been awesome. We’re just going to keep putting him at the top of the lineup and let him set the tone for us.”

Lee has been viewed as more of a contact hitter, but his first blast suggested that he might have more thump in his left-handed bat than expected.

“Back in the KBO, I got a lot of doubles, triples,” Lee said via interpreter Justin Han. “I’m just thinking about the bat-to-ball skills. … I feel like getting adjusted to the league has been a good process, and it’s all because of my teammates.”

Lee extended the Giants’ lead to 4-1, but the knockout blow came five batters later, when Conforto slugged his second career grand slam on a misplaced sinker from Cosgrove. It was Conforto’s second home run in three games, and his first grand slam since May 28, 2019.

“I feel like everything is coming together at the right time, right at the beginning of the season,” Conforto said. “It was a cool at-bat to have, bases loaded against that guy. He’s a good lefty. To battle and fight and kind of change my approach by the end of it, that felt really good.”

The flamethrowing Hicks topped out at 99.5 mph with his fastball, but he also mixed in plenty of wicked sweepers and splitters, which accounted for four of his six strikeouts. He stumbled into a jam after the Padres loaded the bases with one out in the fourth, but he managed to avoid damage by striking out Tyler Wade swinging on the split and then inducing an inning-ending lineout from Jackson Merrill.

“He’s throwing 3-2 splitters to strike guys out,” Melvin said. “You get a third weapon like that, with his fastball, it’s pretty tough to think along with him.”

Hicks also benefited from some elite defense when third baseman Matt Chapman backhanded Fernando Tatis Jr.’s hard-hit grounder to the left side before spinning and throwing to first for the final out of the third. Shortstop Nick Ahmed also made a phenomenal barehanded play to rob Tatis again to end the fifth, drawing more appreciation from Hicks.

“I love having them there,” Hicks said. “You can’t ask for much more. They were very, very good today.”