SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants’ half-empty ballpark came to life in the 10th inning Wednesday afternoon.
Closer Camilo Doval had snuffed out the Cleveland Guardians in the top of the inning and stranded the automatic runner. The Giants merely needed to score theirs from second base to win their second extra-inning game of the series and complete a 5-1 homestand that would be more about preserving hopes than creating them. The home half of the 10th began with enough promise. J.D. Davis, whose three-run home run tied the game in the eighth inning, drew a walk. And Brandon Crawford was announced as the pinch-hitter.
The crowd immediately came to its feet. It wasn’t quite the ovation that Barry Bonds would receive when he’d come off the bench on days when he didn’t start. But it’s difficult to imagine any other player on the current roster receiving such an instant endorsement from the stands. Crawford is the last link to the championship era. He once won a wild card elimination game with a grand slam. His mental Rolodex with the game on the line is stuffed and dogeared from 12 seasons of thumbing through the cards. He is also hitting .199 with a 61 OPS+ (where 100 is league average) — the worst offensive season of his career, nearly on par with his struggles when he was a rookie rushed up from A-ball in 2011. But he has played the hero so many times. It’s easier to envision coming through when you’ve done it before. That’s true in the batter’s box. That’s also true in the box seats.
A walk-off hit from Crawford wouldn’t count more than if anyone else had hit it. But it would mean more.
Barely more than a month ago, the Giants had the game on the line against the Texas Rangers when Crawford’s spot came up against left-hander Aroldis Chapman. When manager Gabe Kapler called Crawford back and sent up Mark Mathias, a waiver-wire infielder with 73 big league games, it was a mirror moment for a front office and coaching staff that values predictive modeling over the hot hand or the heartbeat. Sometimes the empirically correct move just doesn’t feel right.
In the 10th inning on Wednesday, when Crawford replaced Paul DeJong against Guardians right-hander Xzavion Curry, the crowd made it clear with their reaction: the move felt right.
But major league organizations do not change their stripes in mid-September. And the Giants did not send up Crawford with a chance to win the game. That much became clear when he squared to bunt at the first pitch. Then he squared at the second pitch. Neither were in the strike zone and Crawford pulled the bat back both times. With a 3-0 count, the bunt sign was still on. Crawford ignored it and took a pitch for a strike instead. He squared again with a 3-1 count. Another pitch out of the zone. Crawford dropped his bat and jogged to first base. The bunt sign was on the entire time.
LaMonte Wade Jr. followed with a sacrifice fly to left field that was just deep enough — and outfielder Steven Kwan’s throw was just high enough — to score Patrick Bailey and survive a replay challenge that allowed the Giants to twice celebrate a 6-5 victory. The Giants followed up a three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies by taking two of three from the Guardians. They absolutely needed to bank victories against two lesser opponents on this homestand. They checked the box. Flaws and all, they dragged themselves a little further into September and ensured that the next series — four games against the Rockies at Coors Field — will continue to matter.
Even when the Giants win five of six, their imperfections are far from hidden. The pregame conversation with Kapler Wednesday morning was about defense and the fact that the Giants became the first major league team to commit its 100th error of the season a night earlier. Then in the first inning Wednesday, third baseman Casey Schmitt skipped a throw for a two-out error as two runs scored. Combined with the two-run home run that rookie Kyle Harrison served up to José Ramírez, the Giants trailed 4-0 before taking their first at-bat.
It’s not always easy to evaluate a team’s defensive ability. On one hand, the Giants lead the major leagues in errors. They have committed more errors than the league average at every defensive position except third base. They also rank as the seventh-best team in the major leagues with 15 Outs Above Average, which grades them at above average at every infield position. Bailey, who has been a defensive wonder behind the plate, ranks as the second-best performer in the major leagues with 16 fielding runs saved, according to Statcast. Their outfield play hasn’t been a strength, particularly as rookies Luis Matos and Wade Meckler had a rough introduction to the big leagues and Mike Yastrzemski, a Gold Glove-adjacent defender, has missed time. But as Kapler attested Wednesday morning, outfielders have made many more plays for the pitching staff than they did a year ago, when the unit was the worst in the majors in Outs Above Average.
“I don’t think we play the style of defense that championship teams need to play, yet,” Kapler acknowledged. “We have to keep driving towards that level of defense. It’s not for any shortage of hard work and sweat. Our defenders work as hard as anybody and our coaches work as hard as anybody with our defenders. We have to keep grinding in that direction.”
THE WEEK OF WADE 🙌 pic.twitter.com/pYI3xMxDss
— SFGiants (@SFGiants) September 13, 2023
The grind hasn’t always been so pretty to watch. The Giants lost Tuesday night in part because Wade clanked a ground ball for his 10th error of the season, which is the second most among major league first basemen. There were also two potential double plays that weren’t turned, both times because second baseman Thairo Estrada was playing lefty-hitting Josh Naylor to pull and was too far away when Naylor instead hit a pair of ground balls to Crawford at shortstop. Another double-play ball resulted in one out when both Crawford and Estrada went to field a grounder up the middle. But those plays were more misfortune than mistake. If teams were still allowed to play infield shifts, perhaps both of Naylor’s grounders would have scooted through the left side for hits.
But here’s the cold, hard reality when you are down to the final 20 games and cannot afford to lose any of them: It doesn’t matter whether the Giants have been a good defensive team or an error-prone one. It doesn’t matter whether their opponent scores runs because of mistakes or because of misfortune afield. The Giants simply have to out-hit them. They weren’t able to do that on Tuesday. They were running out of time to do it on Wednesday before Joc Pederson was hit by a pitch, Bailey singled and Davis drove a pitch to deep left field.
Pederson, standing on third base, turned toward the bleachers and thrust both arms in the air long before the baseball slipped over the fence.
If it felt like ages since the Giants hit a three-run homer, that’s because the previous one came on July 18.
“It was a coin flip if it was going to go out or not,” Davis said. “But once Kwan started backing up, backing up, and finally hit the wall, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole different ballgame right now.’ ”
Seize the Davis pic.twitter.com/B6fyCIwZnL
— SFGiants (@SFGiants) September 13, 2023
A coin flip is beginning to describe the Giants’ postseason odds after they improved to 75-71 and gained a game on the Arizona Diamondbacks for the third and final NL wild-card spot. The Giants are a half-game behind the Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds but even with both teams in the all-important loss column. The Miami Marlins are right there with 71 losses, too.
Here’s the good news: All of their fellow wild-card hopefuls are flawed, too. The team that emerges probably won’t have the fewest flaws. It’ll be the team that does the most to overcome them.
If that team is the Giants, then they probably won’t get in because they rode the hot hand or leaned on experience. It might mean more to watch Crawford win a game with a drive to the gap. But it counts the same if he helps to win it with the intent to sacrifice and a walk that loads the bases.
Even when Crawford didn’t get the bunt down, he still sacrificed a chance to be the hero. Perhaps his manager felt that was important to highlight in his postgame session with reporters.
“That was not a lucky walk,” Kapler said. “That was a very confident, ready-to-bunt approach — not going to just bunt for the sake of bunting. That was as meaningful an at-bat as we had.”
(Top photo of LaMonte Wade Jr. celebrating his walk-off sacrifice fly: Sergio Estrada / USA Today)