ATLANTA — It’s more likely than ever that top pitching prospect Kyle Harrison has made his last start for Triple-A Sacramento. The San Francisco Giants are strongly considering calling up the heralded left-hander to make his major league debut in a series at Philadelphia that begins on Monday, sources tell The Athletic.
The circumstances are far from perfect. Ideally, the Giants would debut Harrison in front of their fans in San Francisco and turn the event into a cause cêlebre. They would make the logistics easier on his family as well as the coaches and former teammates who played with him at De La Salle High School in nearby Concord. They would hope that the talented 22-year-old could hit the ground running by joining the major league club when it already was on a roll instead of potentially feeling additional pressure to help pull the team out of a losing skid. In a perfect world, they would slot him against one of the league’s less threatening lineups — not stick him in front of a hostile road crowd in one of the NL’s liveliest ballparks.
But for the Giants, there is no such thing as a soft opponent these days. There are no easy games. There are no fluffy landing spots. Nothing about their current circumstances screams “perfect world.” If there’s any move for this listing team that can improve the talent on their roster, whether it’s on the fringes or front and center, the Giants hardly can afford to wait.
The sense of urgency is growing and so is the frustration of every loss — especially the ones that slip away. The Giants positioned themselves on Saturday to come out ahead in what was forecasted to be their most winnable game of their weekend series against the formidable Atlanta Braves. Then a World Series MVP ripped off two calendar pages and advanced straight to October. Eddie Rosario’s fourth hit of the night was a two-run home run in the eighth inning that stunned right-hander Tyler Rogers, flipped a one-run deficit into a one-run lead, and sent the Giants to a 5-4 loss in front of a partying, sellout crowd at Truist Park.
For the Giants, it was as must-win as an August game can get. They had their ace, Logan Webb, on the mound. They were facing Braves right-hander Yonny Chirinos (5-5, 5.22 ERA) instead of Spencer Strider (who struck out 12 in seven shutout innings on Friday) or Max Fried (last year’s NL Cy Young Award runner-up, who will pitch for a sweep on Sunday). They’ve taken on so much water in the NL wild-card standings that they’re one bad day away from sinking out of the top three spots. Picking off just one game in Atlanta against a Braves lineup that wasn’t a fair match for their own struggling bunch might have counted as a mild accomplishment.
Instead, they lost for the 12th time in their last 13 road games. They’ve dropped 10 of their last 13 overall, including five consecutive series. They’ll try to salvage a win here with a bullpen game behind Jakob Junis and Co.
Why not debut Harrison against the Braves? Now that would be really imperfect. The Braves have the highest OPS against left-handed pitching in the major leagues. You didn’t need to watch Ronald Acuña Jr. barrel Webb’s changeup on the black and send it screaming into the right field stands, or watch Marcell Ozuna elevate hits against two of the league’s elite ground-ball pitchers, to understand that Atlanta’s lineup drips with right-handed venom.
The Phillies have fangs, too. They were the league’s hottest offensive team through the first two weeks of August. But their production against left-handers is a little nearer to the league average. Their lineup tilts left-handed with Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and Bryson Stott. It would be a difficult assignment for Harrison, who likely would be asked to throw no more than three or four innings. But not impossible.
And it’s not like waiting until their homestand opener on Friday to debut Harrison would be any more appealing. Not when they’ll turn back around and face the Braves again.
Nobody would suggest that one rookie pitcher can address all the issues facing the Giants roster. But they do have an immediate need to cover innings. They also have an avenue to get Harrison on the roster. They placed right-hander Ross Stripling on the 15-day injured list because of a mild upper back strain on Saturday. They also placed right-handed reliever Ryan Walker on the paternity list. Consequently, right-hander Sean Hjelle was awakened by a phone call at 5:15 a.m. at his apartment in Walnut Creek and found himself on a nonstop flight to Atlanta less than three hours later. The 6-foot-11 pitcher arrived at Truist Park in the afternoon with his baseball glove and the clothes on his back. Hjelle borrowed Sean Manaea’s size 15 cleats — their nickname for each other is “Big Sean” — so he could get his throwing done on the field before the Braves closed it for an alumni softball game.
Infielder Casey Schmitt, whom the Giants also recalled, had to take a later flight and he portered Hjelle’s equipment bag. Schmitt was coming off a four-game conflagration in Sacramento in which he went 10 for 18 with two home runs, a double and a triple. But his promotion was more of a reaction to shortstop Brandon Crawford’s ongoing struggles at the plate and with his health. Crawford is riding a 1-for-18 stretch that reduced his average to .194. He has dealt with ongoing knee issues. And manager Gabe Kapler revealed that the 36-year-old shortstop also has left forearm discomfort that has affected him at the plate. The Giants rested Crawford on Saturday and plan to give him Sunday off as well.
So Schmitt arrived in the sixth inning — he waited an hour for his luggage, he said — and found himself suddenly in the game when LaMonte Wade Jr. required a pinch runner in the eighth because his side was beginning to cramp up. Then Schmitt struck out against Braves closer Raisel Iglesias to end the game.
“It’s like, `Hey, welcome back,’” Schmitt said.
The welcome mat is all but rolled out for Harrison, who beat a path in his last two starts for Sacramento while striking out 11 without issuing a walk in 7 1/3 innings. The left-hander has a 4.52 ERA in 21 starts for Sacramento but has struck out 109 in 67 2/3 innings. There hasn’t been a Giants starting pitching prospect since Tim Lincecum who had Harrison’s ability to miss bats. As early as April, Giants president Farhan Zaidi was saying that Harrison had checked off every box but one: the organization wanted to see a little more strike-throwing consistency. If not for a hamstring strain that sidelined Harrison for four weeks in July, he almost certainly would’ve arrived by now.
But because Harrison remained in the minors a bit longer, the Giants could be in line for an additional benefit if he has a banner year next season. Because there are fewer than 60 days of service time remaining in the season, Harrison is guaranteed to retain his rookie status in 2024, as long as he does not reach 50 regular-season innings with the Giants down the stretch. As part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s promotion incentive plan, players with rookie status who accrue a full year of service time and win a Rookie of the Year award or finish top three in MVP or Cy Young balloting would net their clubs a bonus draft pick after the first round. The Seattle Mariners received an extra pick (29th overall) in this year’s draft because outfielder Julio Rodriguez won AL Rookie of the Year last season.
Clubs are eligible to receive a maximum of one bonus pick per year, by the way. So between Harrison and shortstop Marco Luciano, the Giants could give themselves two bites at the apple.
The Giants hadn’t made a final decision on Harrison as of Saturday night. But he is scheduled to take the ball for Sacramento on Sunday. So things will become clear soon enough.
This is a team that could benefit from any kind of enthusiasm or distraction. They received a leadoff homer from Wade and better at-bats from the middle of the lineup while collecting 11 hits, including three ultra-rare hits with runners in scoring position. The Braves twice came back to tie and the Giants twice pushed back ahead, first on a sacrifice fly from J.D. Davis in the fourth inning and then on Johan Camargo’s double-play grounder with the bases loaded in the sixth.
But the Giants continued to lack those three-run knockout punches into the bleachers. And you usually have to do more than land jabs to beat the Braves on the scorecard.
Rosario hit an RBI double against one of Webb’s infrequent four-seam fastballs in the second inning, singled and scored in the fourth, singled again in the sixth, then faced Rogers after Ozuna lined a two-out single in the eighth. There was no doubt when Rosario connected on a first-pitch sinker. The ball traveled 444 feet to center field.
“Honestly, that thought wasn’t even in my head that that would happen,” Rogers said.
Why would it be? Rogers hadn’t given up a homer to a left-handed batter in almost a year. The San Diego Padres’ Trent Grisham was the last left-handed hitter to clip him on Aug. 30 of last season.
Rosario made one more contribution. He charged a sinking fly ball and dived headfirst while taking a hit away from Joc Pederson in the fifth inning. Pederson, a fellow catalyst on the Braves’ 2021 World Series championship team, waited for Rosario to jog in from the outfield. Then he took off his helmet and playfully threw it near Rosario’s legs.
“He gets a lot of big hits in big situations and that one unfortunately hurt,” Pederson said. “When you’re hot you’re hot. He took some good swings against some good pitchers. And then he’s making diving plays, too.
“I tried. I tried to take him out.”
(Top photo of Kyle Harrison pitching for the Giants in spring training: David Durochik / Diamond Images via Getty Images)