Bullpen can't hold back Dodgers in opener

July 24th, 2020

Earlier this month, new Giants manager Gabe Kapler said he wasn’t in a rush to determine which pitchers he’d trust in late-inning situations during the regular season.

“I don’t think we’re in a race to set that,” Kapler said. “I don’t think we have any urgency, and probably more importantly, we don’t really have the personnel with the track record where we can just slot guys into roles.”

The bullpen was the Giants’ biggest strength in 2019, helping the club go an MLB-best 38-16 in one-run games. But the relief corps experienced massive turnover with the trades of Mark Melancon, Sam Dyson and Drew Pomeranz at last year’s Trade Deadline and the departure of All-Star closer Will Smith via free agency this offseason.

The Giants entered the 2020 campaign with only one reliever -- left-hander Tony Watson -- with substantial back-end experience in the Majors, creating questions about how Kapler would navigate high-leverage situations. That inexperience was exposed in Thursday’s 8-1 loss to the Dodgers on Opening Night at Dodger Stadium, as rookies and combined to give up five runs in the decisive seventh inning.

With the game tied, 1-1, Kapler summoned Rogers, one of his most trusted relievers, to pitch the seventh, but the 29-year-old submariner yielded a single to Mookie Betts, followed by a double to Cody Bellinger. Betts later scored the go-ahead run from third on a fielder’s choice by Justin Turner, beating a throw home from second baseman Donovan Solano.

“I think the swing point, obviously, was the play at the plate with Betts,” Kapler said. “If that out is recorded at the plate, I think we're talking about a much different game. That's the way baseball works.”

Enrique Hernández extended the Dodgers’ lead to 4-1 with a two-run single to right field. Kapler brought in Jiménez to try to stop the bleeding, but the hard-throwing righty struggled with his command in his Major League debut, issuing back-to-back walks to Joc Pederson and AJ Pollock to load the bases. Los Angeles added two more runs after Austin Barnes reached on a fielder’s choice and Max Muncy drew a bases-loaded walk, putting the game out of reach for San Francisco.

Hernández capped his five-RBI night with a two-run shot off left-hander Conner Menez in the eighth.

Thursday’s outcome underscored the talent disparity that exists between the Giants and the Dodgers, and the ways Kapler and his staff intend to try to bridge that gap during this pandemic-shortened 60-game regular season. After Los Angeles left-hander Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his scheduled start with back tightness, Kapler had to scrap his original lineup for his Giants managerial debut and assemble a new configuration to create more favorable matchups against his replacement, right-hander Dustin May.

Despite stacking their lineup with left-handed hitters to try to gain the platoon advantage, the Giants scored only one run, on a sacrifice fly by Pablo Sandoval in the third.

Veteran right-hander drew his first Opening Day assignment for the Giants and allowed only one run over four solid innings. The 34-year-old veteran had pitched exactly seven innings in each of his four previous Opening Day starts with the Reds, but the accelerated ramp-up this year meant he wasn’t as stretched out as he would be after a normal six-week Spring Training.

Cueto, who is accustomed to pitching deep into games, said he is still adjusting to the Giants’ new strategies, which could call for starters to be pulled before they are left exposed to potential third-time-through-the-order penalties.

“You have to adjust to everything in life, but it’s uncomfortable,” Cueto said in Spanish. “It’s the first time I’ve experienced this in my career, and I’ve been in the Majors for 12 years.”

Left-hander Drew Smyly, a projected member of the rotation, took over for Cueto in the fifth inning and worked around an error by third baseman Wilmer Flores to post a scoreless inning. Rico Garcia worked a clean sixth in his Giants debut before the ill-fated seventh.

The Giants have not yet announced their starter for Friday -- or the rest of the series -- as they will attempt to mix and match to gain an edge wherever possible. But as Thursday showed, their youth and relative inexperience will leave them with little margin for error, especially against behemoths like the Dodgers.

“My impressions are that we didn't execute as well as the Dodgers overall,” Kapler said.