LOS ANGELES — Whenever a starting pitcher has a strong outing, as Giants right-hander Sean Manaea did while throwing seven shutout innings in a 5-1 victory Friday night at Dodger Stadium, the teammate best equipped to comment on his stuff is his catcher, of course. The next best teammate is usually the center fielder, who has a camera operator’s vantage point and can appreciate the contours of every well-placed pitch.
So when reporters crowded around center fielder Tyler Fitzgerald’s locker following a rare road victory — after asking him to describe the thrill of hitting his first major league home run, after getting his reaction to the fact that fellow rookie and longtime minor league teammate Marco Luciano was the first player to greet him at the plate, and after hearing him describe the odd joy of getting booed around the bases by a sellout crowd — someone asked for his impressions of Manaea’s performance.
“You know, I’ve seen more than you think,” Fitzgerald said.
Every once in a while, the patron saint of sportswriters answers a prayer. And a golden anecdote falls out of the sky.
“My brother caught him at Indiana State,” Fitzgerald said. “So I grew up going to Sean’s games. I wasn’t even surprised. I’ve seen that a lot of times.”
Mike Fitzgerald is six years older than Tyler. He was a 27th-round draft pick in 2014 and played a handful of games for the San Diego Padres’ rookie-level affiliate. His big-league dreams ended there. But as he sat in the stands at Dodger Stadium, how could he not feel as intimately connected to the action on the field as one of the players? His college teammate was dealing against one of the league’s best lineups. And his little brother, who hit a double in his major league debut a night earlier, elevated a breaking ball and sent a two-run home run into the left-field seats in the ninth inning.
“I think I ran the bases a little too fast,” Tyler Fitzgerald said. “I should have enjoyed it a little more. But it was awesome. All the hard work I’ve put in to be here, to hit that in the ninth inning was pretty special. … (Mike) was here today so it was very special to hit it in front of my family.”
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Tyler Fitzgerald laughed as he recalled spotting Manaea at a grocery store in Scottsdale, Ariz., shortly before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. He knew Manaea would remember him, even though he’s a lot taller than he was as a 15-year-old. But he didn’t want to bother a big leaguer in a public setting. A few weeks later, when Fitzgerald was summoned from minor league camp to fill out an exhibition roster, he made sure to let Manaea know that Mike’s little brother hadn’t forgotten him.
“It’s amazing,” Manaea said. “The kid comes up to a place like this and it definitely feels like he’s not scared of anything.”
The fear factor was different for Manaea, who spoke candidly — “I mean, I have nightmares about coming to this place and facing these guys,” he said — about pitching in a cacophonous ballpark in which he had a 9.78 ERA in five games (four starts) and had allowed seven home runs among 36 hits in 23 innings. Hitters owned a 1.022 OPS against him at Dodger Stadium, a higher mark than either of this year’s leading NL MVP candidates, Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuña Jr.
But Manaea didn’t pitch away from contact Friday night. He pumped 71.8 percent strikes, didn’t issue a walk, and benefited from a lineout here and there while holding the Dodgers to three hits.
“Dreams do come true,” Manaea said.
Manaea is setting himself up for what could be a dream offseason that didn’t appear possible in mid-May, when he had a 7.96 ERA in nine games (six starts), had walked 16 batters in 27 2/3 innings, and pitched his way out of a stable rotation spot and into a bulk innings role. (Although in fairness, we probably should expunge the two innings he threw in Mexico City, when he was charged with four earned runs.)
He has performed so well while maintaining his stuff over the past four months that it should be an elementary decision for the Scott Boras client to opt out of his $12.5 million salary in 2024 and seek a lucrative multiyear contract in free agency. You could ask someone like Drew Pomeranz, who parlayed a decent 2019 season with the Giants and Milwaukee Brewers into a four-year, $34 million contract, whether the industry values left-handers who run their fastball up to 97 mph and command at least one breaking pitch. Manaea’s better track record of durability and his season arc should earn him a much bigger guaranteed sum than that.
Unlike Ross Stripling, who announced that he would not decline an identical $12.5 million option to return next season, Manaea steadfastly declined to tip his hand when asked for his thoughts on the matter. But unlike Stripling, Manaea was able to rescue his season. Beginning with a 3 2/3-inning, no run, eight-strikeout relief appearance on May 22 in Minnesota, he has held batters to a .622 OPS in 27 appearances (three starts). And he’s likely back in the rotation for another two turns.
“The more I throw, the more I have confidence in all three of my pitches,” Manaea said. “There’s no need to shy away from things. Just attack guys and you’ll see the results.”
Manaea’s former batterymate’s kid brother helped to ensure the left-hander’s first winning decision here. Fitzgerald became the first Giant to hit his first big league home run at Dodger Stadium since Brandon Belt in 2011, according to ESPN’s Sarah Langs. (Prior to Belt, that distinction belonged to left-handed pitcher Noah Lowry, who went deep here in 2006.)
Fitzgerald’s homer followed an impressive at-bat from Luciano, who battled back from an 0-2 count against Dodgers lefty Ryan Yarbrough and sizzled a single up the middle that registered 111.8 mph off the bat — the seventh hardest-hit ball by a Giant all season. Luciano also smoked the second hardest-hit ball by both teams Friday night, lining a 107.8 mph single earlier in the game. He stole second base, too, which was a good sign given that a hamstring issue sidelined him for more than a month after August 8.
“I feel very proud and honored to be the first one to greet him at home plate,” Luciano said through Spanish interpreter Erwin Higueros. “We played a long time together. So to be here for that means a lot to me. He has a lot of talent. The main thing is he’s a great teammate. You can see he has good work ethic. He keeps a straight line and he knows what he wants to accomplish.”
Luciano, 22, might be the most likely choice in a wide-open field to inherit Brandon Crawford’s position and become the Giants’ primary shortstop next season. But Fitzgerald can insert himself in the conversation, too. He’s learning the outfield for the first time and played just 24 games in center field for Triple-A Sacramento before the Giants called him up. Of the 421 games he’s played in his minor league career, 245 have come at shortstop. In an ideal scenario, Luciano hits enough to hold down an everyday role on the infield and Fitzgerald, who stole 32 bases in 35 attempts across two minor league levels, becomes the Giants’ versatile and athletic analog to the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor.
It’s not as if these final games count as an audition to be the Opening Day shortstop in 2024. The Giants expect to be active on the trade front this winter as they seek more lineup continuity. Even if they don’t acquire an everyday shortstop in the offseason, they’ll be sure to add veteran competition for the position in spring training.
For now, two talented rookies rewarded the Giants for the opportunity and helped their playoff probabilities from moving to the wrong side of the decimal point. The Chicago Cubs won to maintain a three-game lead over the Giants for the final wild-card spot — although because the Cubs hold the tiebreaker over San Francisco, it’s essentially a four-game advantage. The Giants also still have to leap past the Miami Marlins (two ahead of them in the loss column) and Cincinnati Reds (one ahead of them in the loss column), both of whom lost Friday night.
The Giants probably have to run the table in every scenario, which didn’t seem so plausible for a team that entered Friday night having lost 26 of their last 31 road games.
So Fitzgerald’s homer created critical breathing room for closer Camilo Doval, who stranded two of three inherited runners in the eighth and then pitched a stress-free ninth to achieve a road save that might have started to seem impossible to achieve. With dashes of poor defense and bad batted-ball luck, Doval had been charged with a blown save in each of his four previous road opportunities. He hadn’t converted a save on the road since July 18 at Cincinnati — the day before the Giants’ extreme road woes began.
That streak ended Friday night. The Giants were able to celebrate a rookie’s first home run in a winning clubhouse. It might be too late for more dreams to come true. But after everything the Giants have endured, they’ll take the reprieve.
(Top photo of Sean Manaea: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)