SAN FRANCISCO — If you’ve ceded the season for the San Francisco Giants, or at least convinced yourself to equate mental wellness with modest expectations, then their 6-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday night offered promising signs for a better future ahead.
Rookie right-hander Keaton Winn struck out nine in six innings to claim his first major-league win, dominating the Rockies with his 99 mph fastball and splitter while generating 22 swinging strikes — the most by a Giants pitcher all season. Outfielder Mitch Haniger, who has provided so little return on his $43.5 million contract and finally hit his first Oracle Park home run as a Giant two nights earlier, doubled off the arcade and deposited another pitch into the left-field bleachers.
Before Sunday night, Winn and Haniger had played a total of one major-league game together. The day Winn made his debut June 13 at St. Louis also happened to be the day that Haniger fractured his forearm when hit by a pitch. That’s an emblematic intersection for the Giants, who still like a lot of their players but haven’t been able to integrate so many of them this season. Watching Winn pump strikes and Haniger pummel them, you can envision that combination leading to victories a year from now.
A year from now is where the odds tell you to look. The Giants wrecked their playoff percentages when they lost six consecutive games at Petco Park and Wrigley Field last week. They’re realistically one of four teams in a scrum for the third and final NL wild-card spot with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins and Cincinnati Reds. There’s no drafting advantage from behind in this race, and when you’re trailing so many teams, scoreboard-watching becomes a multitasking exercise. You might gain ground when you win. You’re almost guaranteed to slip further behind someone when you lose.
The Giants did not lose over the weekend. They hit eight home runs and averaged eight runs per game while sweeping the pitiable Rockies, which is what they had to do. Over this three-game series, the Giants couldn’t spring back into favored status in this race. But they sure could’ve played their way out of it.
Playing the ESPN night game after the rest of the league closed up shop Sunday meant that the Giants knew where they could gain ground before they took the field. It was a narrow patch of grass. The Marlins won. The Reds won. But the Diamondbacks lost.
So the Giants find themselves 1 1/2 games behind Arizona (one back in the loss column) for the final wild-card position while also a half-game behind the Marlins and in a virtual tie with the Reds. If it’s the full picture you want, they’re 5 1/2 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies and 3 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs, who occupy the top two wild-card positions. But survey the players in the Giants clubhouse and they’ll tell you that they aren’t even looking at the first two places. They’ve reduced it down to the third spot and the hope to squeak into a best-of-three series that would come entirely on the road and almost certainly against the NL Central winner. (That opponent could end up being the Cubs and not the Milwaukee Brewers, by the way. Notably, the Cubs still have six games with the Rockies on their schedule.)
While the Giants’ odds are still in the 30 percent range, they helped themselves in multiple respects over the weekend. In addition to moving three games over .500, they also boosted their chances of claiming a tiebreaker against one of their wild-card rivals, the Marlins, with whom they split the six-game season series. The next tiebreaker after the head-to-head record is the intradivision record, and the Giants’ 22-14 success against NL West opponents measures up well against the Marlins’ 21-22 record against the NL East. Given that ties will no longer be broken on the field, and the crowded nature of the race, there’s a good chance someone will end up going home based on a tiebreaker — just as the Giants did in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season when the Brewers snuck past them into the last spot in an expanded postseason.
The Giants’ current tiebreaker forecast is looking much better. They already hold it over the Reds by virtue of a head-to-head record. They are 6-5 against the Diamondbacks this season and must win at least one of two games Sept. 19-20 at Chase Field to clinch that tiebreaker as well.
But there’s considerable work to be done for those advantages to matter. In a crowded playoff field, someone always gets hot at the end. So realistically, the Giants need to win no fewer than 12 and probably closer to 14 of their final 19 games to sneak into the playoffs. And seven of their final 10 games will come against the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, including MVP candidate Mookie Betts, who will have plenty of motivation to keep padding his numbers.
You begin to understand why modest expectations are also the healthiest.
But in a media landscape where belief has to be quantified to be justified, the only opinions that truly matter are within the Giants clubhouse. The players are the ones who have to believe that their offense is truly capable of turning a corner and that their roster, which is finally getting nearer to what they envisioned, has enough daily heroes to deliver the kind of finishing kick that’s required. That’s why club president Farhan Zaidi assembled the players for a meeting before Friday night’s game. That’s also why Zaidi appointed a different voice to inspire them — not someone from the current coaching staff but from the previous one.
Ron Wotus, the longest-tenured coach in franchise history, took the floor. His message, as paraphrased by right-handed ace Logan Webb: You show up every year in spring training to get to this position, right? So why would you get to this position and not try? You work out hard for six straight months, eight months — honestly, it’s 12 months — so why would you get to this position and not give it your best and your all? Because no matter what happens at the end of the year, we’re just gonna go back to the offseason and show up to spring training and try to get to the position we’re in right now. We’re in the hunt and we have a chance to do something special. So bust your ass every day. Do your best to win no matter what.
“That’s a great message, right?” Webb said.
But belief has to come from more than the players, too. The front office has to demonstrate it with actions as well as words, and when they arrived at Winn to start Sunday night, they didn’t give him an opener or artificially limit him to 18 batters. So Winn received a conventional start. They’ve lined up their pitching in a more conventional sense in the upcoming home series against the Cleveland Guardians, too, announcing that Alex Cobb would start Monday followed by Sean Manaea on Tuesday and Kyle Harrison on Wednesday.
Winn settled in after pitching through some weirdness in the second inning that included a painful comebacker off his knee, a bunt single that took advantage of his mobility issues, and a two-run triple. A sacrifice fly completed the three-run inning.
The Giants retook the lead after homers from Thairo Estrada and Haniger in the third. Then Winn filled up the strike zone while retiring 12 of his last 14 batters. He threw 62 of 80 pitches for strikes and generated an astounding 18 whiffs in 26 swings against his splitter, which was lethal in the late-afternoon shadows.
“Man, he was just pounding the zone,” Haniger said. “He threw, like, 87 percent first-pitch strikes. He hasn’t made many starts for us, but that’s … very impressive.”
Winn dealt with his own health setback this season when his work at Triple-A Sacramento was interrupted at the end of July because of right elbow soreness. He took a two-week break and slowly ramped up from there. It was easy to forget about Winn in August while another rookie starter, Tristan Beck, contributed in a starter and bulk-innings role and top prospect Harrison made his celebrated major league debut. Now the Giants can look forward to a potential rotation in 2024 headed by Webb and Cobb while Winn and Harrison further establish themselves. A heady supply of high-level pitching, plus a lot of depth in the wings, is the surest way for a team to be competitive despite an offense that is forecasted to be no better than average.
But we’re venturing into 2024 again. And being competitive.
The Giants have to be a fair deal better than that for the next three weeks of baseball to result in an extra team flight in October.
(Top photo of Mitch Haniger hitting a two-run home run in the bottom of the third inning Sunday against the Rockies: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)