By Morris Phillips
SAN FRANCISCO — Hunter Strickland: Close or not to close? That is the question.
For eight innings on Monday, numerous storylines swirled around the windy ballpark by the Bay, most of them surrounding a redemptive win for the Giants over the Miami Marlins, their lowly, youthful nemesis from the National League East.
But all those storylines were flushed when Strickland entered, and walked two of the first three batters he faced, on his way to turning a 4-2 lead into a bitterly, disappointing 5-4 loss.
Quite naturally, manager Bruce Bochy emerged for his post-game presser and the questions surfaced: What’s going on with Strickland? Should he be the closer if Mark Melancon’s healthy? How can he can be the guy if only his fastball is thrown with confidence and proficiency?
“There’s no reason to have a leash on him,” Bochy calmly reasoned. “He’s pitched well.”
And so continues Bochy’s belief in the hard-throwing right hander, a belief that began with the 2014 World Series, even as Strickland allowed home run after home run.
And the truth is, over the years, Strickland’s got better and better, in concert with Bochy’s steady belief… for the most part.
Monday just wasn’t Strickland’s night, not by any stretch. Nor the Giants, who have suddenly lost seven of 11, and are on mid-season, life support, even in the forgiving NL West.
“For eight innings, we played great baseball,” Bochy said. “Couldn’t add on…”
Great baseball, then pfffft? Yes.
Andrew Suarez–in his second, consecutive start against the team he grew up watching–had the type of start he wanted in Miami. Suarez pitched into the seventh inning, striking out seven, walking one, before departing with a two-run lead. Making his 11th big league start, the former Miami Hurricane looked like he deserves to make another 100 starts: he was efficient, threw strikes and quietly set the tone for what the Giants hope is a bounce back homestand.
Sam Dyson followed, retiring all five batters he faced. Pablo Sandoval supplied the big blow, a two-run shot in the Giants’ three-run second. Buster Posey, limited in the Dodgers series, started behind the plate, and doubled leading off that inning, setting the table for Joe Panik as well as Sandoval.
Kelby Tomlinson started in place of Brandon Crawford (off to celebrate the birth of his child) and made it happen at short with a pair of Crawford-like fielding plays.
Bochy’s claim of beautiful baseball prior to the ninth? Not far from fact. Not adding on? The Giants went scoreless over the final, six innings of the ballgame. The Giants’ first three hitters in Monday’s lineup–Gorkys Hernandez, Brandon Belt and Andrew McCutchen combined for just one hit (1 for 12, one run scored).
That bring us back to Strickland, who entered Monday’s game having converted 11 of his previous 12 save opportunities, and hadn’t allowed an earned run since May 28 at Colorado. But while facing the bottom half of the Marlins’ lineup, Strickland couldn’t settle in, walking Brian Anderson before allowing J.T. Realmuto’s RBI double. Strickland then walked Justin Bour, a guy who had two hits in his previous 15 at-bats.
One out later, Lewis Brinson, hitting .179, singled home Realmuto, tying the game, 5-5. The next hitter, Miguel Rojas delivered the go- ahead run with a single to right.
“Nothing seemed to be right and working for me,” Strickland admitted.
In his previous 33 appearances in 2018, Strickland walked just 11 batters, and had walked more than one batter just twice. The multiple home runs Strickland allowed in the 2014 postseason aren’t issues any longer. In 2018, Strickland’s allowed a home run to Eric Hosmer and one other to Paul Goldschmidt.
So all numbers point to an off night, and Melancon’s likely to be Strickland’s richly-paid understudy for the forseeable future.
The Giants have now dropped four of five to the Marlins, and are 2-9 against the fish over the last two seasons.
Dereck Rodriguez gets the start Tuesday in a matchup against Miami’s Dan Straily, the former Oakland Athletic.