OAKLAND, Calif. — It is the most enduring and maddening incongruity in this Giants season. It is the baseball equivalent of freezer burn.
The Giants are one of the league’s best-performing teams against opponents with winning records. The Giants are one of the league’s most underwhelming teams against the also-rans. Simply put, they’ve been meh against the dregs. Sure, those home series losses to the Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals happened a lifetime ago in April. But their current eight-game road losing streak is a little tougher to dismiss — especially when the last six of those losses came to the Nationals, the Detroit Tigers, and the stripped-down team that, for the moment anyway, still plays across the Bay Bridge from them.
Bad bullpen work, two costly defensive misplays, and a couple of rare Alex Cobb gopherballs to a ninth-place hitter served to smother an otherwise promising offensive performance as the Giants lost 8-6 in Oakland on Sunday. They dropped both games against the A’s at the Coliseum, splitting the season series against a team that is 30-78 against everyone else.
“To get where you want to be, you have to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat,” said Cobb, acknowledging the Giants’ consistent struggles against non-contenders. “Letting two games go like that … hopefully it’s not going to cost us at the end of the year. But it definitely has the potential to.”
The out-of-town scoreboard might have been the prettiest sight of the day for the Giants. The Arizona Diamondbacks lost for the sixth consecutive time since the Aug. 1 trade deadline. The wild-card contending Cincinnati Reds are also 0-6 in August. The Miami Marlins, whose drive-thru deadline bagged power hitters Jake Burger and Josh Bell along with closer David Robertson, lost for the fifth time in six games. Despite several teams adding more to their rosters than the Giants did, the rest of the NL playoff field is not threatening to run away. Of course, there’s a flipside: The Giants were just handed a low-hanging opportunity to seize control. And they were neither good nor greedy enough to do so.
Where the Giants rank in the Wild Card race ahead of a difficult upcoming schedule 👇 pic.twitter.com/fzuH4Z4UfV
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) August 7, 2023
Now the Giants will embark on an especially rugged portion of their schedule. They’ll play nine consecutive series against teams that are contending or still have designs on doing so. The first stop is Anaheim, where the Angels (also 0-6 since the trade deadline!) will start their prized trade acquisition, Lucas Giolito, on Tuesday and the prize everyone wanted but couldn’t have, Shohei Ohtani, on Wednesday. Then the Giants’ next homestand will be against the AL West-leading Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best record in baseball for most of the first half. They’ll take a road trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia, then turn around and play host to the class-of-the-NL Braves after that.
This is … a good thing?
“The game is so small at the margins,” Cobb said. “The difference between really good and really bad is not far off.”
In other words, strength of schedule isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not in the conventional analysis. Not when you’re attempting to use reverse logic to figure out the Giants, either. It probably doesn’t matter that the Giants’ .557 winning percentage against teams that are .500 or better is the third best in the major leagues. It probably also doesn’t matter that their .540 winning percentage against teams with losing records is the lowest of any team with its head above water. As the great Buckaroo Banzai once said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Regardless of opponent, it’ll be more important that the Giants begin to establish consistent run production to go along with their relatively consistent run prevention.
They made a pregame move that seemed long overdue, optioning struggling rookie infielder Casey Schmitt to Triple-A Sacramento and calling up recently acquired Mark Mathias to serve as a middle-infield backup to Brandon Crawford and Thairo Estrada. They also announced that right-hander Anthony DeSclafani had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow and will not throw for six to eight weeks, essentially ending his season.
Then they played a game that wasn’t entirely forgettable. They created consistent traffic in the first five innings with a mix of walks and opposite-way singles, which was a welcome sight after collecting just five hits over their previous two games combined. J.D. Davis put them on the board with a two-out single in the first inning, perhaps signaling that the Giants’ struggles with runners in scoring position — their .180 average in July was their third-worst month batting with RISP in the last 16 seasons — were beginning to abate. They used guile to add to their lead when Estrada executed a safety squeeze in the fifth inning. It was the Giants’ major league-leading 21st bunt single of the season.
But Cobb gave up a pair of home runs to an unlikely source: A’s No.9 hitter Nick Allen, who entered with a .181 average and one homer all season. Making it even more unlikely: Cobb’s average launch angle of 0.8 degrees is by far the lowest among major-league starters. He’s only given up multiple homers to a batter two other times in his career. The last instance was so long ago that J.T. Realmuto was still wearing a Marlins uniform (in 2018).
The real problems began when Cobb exited with a 6-4 lead after allowing a one-out double in the sixth. Right-hander Luke Jackson entered and could not find the strike zone, throwing three consecutive balls in the dirt to Brent Rooker before coaxing a grounder to short. Crawford’s skipping throw got past first baseman LaMonte Wade Jr. for an error.
It was the worst time to give away an out. Jackson continued to miss the zone, relying on rookie catcher Patrick Bailey to block two more pitches for him to avoid a wild pitch that would have scored a run. Jackson’s pitches weren’t close enough for Bailey to help out with his framing skills. Jordan Diaz walked to load the bases and Tyler Soderstrom walked to force in a run.
Jackson had faced his required third batter but Giants manager Gabe Kapler didn’t hustle out to replace him. Kapler didn’t have another right-hander such as Jakob Junis getting loose in the bullpen alongside left-hander Scott Alexander. So Kapler trusted the certainty of the right-on-right matchup over the uncertainty of where Jackson’s pitches were going. And Shea Langeliers followed with a two-run single that gave the A’s a lead they would not relinquish.
Langeliers for the lead 💪 pic.twitter.com/RPXh11KpBp
— A’s on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) August 6, 2023
Why stick with a reliever who was obviously struggling with command?
“Quite simply, Luke is an excellent, excellent Major League reliever, has been for a really long time, and has had a great year for us so far,” Kapler said. “I had no reason to do anything but trust Jackson right there and I’ll keep doing it going forward.”
A sun-aided double off Michael Conforto’s glove in right field helped the A’s tack on another run in the seventh.
“Not a good baseball game,” Kapler said. “Not a clean baseball game. We’re better than that as a group.”
Bailey, in addition to his five blocks in a three-batter span, reached base four times. Wade had his first three-hit game since June 28. The Giants received enough ingredients to win. But they also fell to 1-20 when allowing at least seven runs. That’s a recipe that hasn’t worked against any opponent regardless of where they sit in the standings.
“I just couldn’t believe that I had that opportunity in front of me today,” Cobb said. “The team seemingly gave me everything I needed early. I thought I made the right adjustments. But I couldn’t string it together. I felt in that moment that I let the team down. I had a really good opportunity to flush what happened early. They gave me a new chance. I wasn’t able to capitalize.”
As the Giants decamped from the Coliseum and headed for Orange County, there was enough of that sentiment to go around.
(Top photo of Alex Cobb: Stan Szeto / USA Today)