SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants seemingly have it all. A grind-it-out lineup with a deep bench that can make life miserable for both right-handed and left-handed pitching. Solid defense all the way around that is occasionally spectacular. An army of relievers that for the most part have held their end en route to a major league-best 78-43 record.
Here’s what they don’t have: current versions of decorated late-season and postseason starters such as Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.
Take Bumgarner’s 2014 heroics against the Kansas City Royals off the table, because it may never be duplicated. Even then, it’s hard to see the Giants starters seizing the moment and dominating hitters in September and October with their current rotation of Kevin Gausman, Logan Webb, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto.
The five starters have a combined record of 47-22 and have contributed to a season no one expected except the players in the clubhouse — and privately most of them would probably admit to being surprised.
But the rotation is leaking oil down the stretch with the exception of Webb, who at age 24 has emerged as their most dependable starter and improved to 7-3 with 7 1/3 innings of work Tuesday night in a 3-2 win over the New York Mets.
Gausman, whose dominance brought to mind some of Lincecum’s magic in his prime, has gone from a lockdown No. 1 starter to something considerably less. He improved to 12-5 in Monday night’s 7-5 win over the Mets, but couldn’t hold a 2-0 lead and made it through just five innings, throwing 94 pitches in the process.
Gausman is 2-2 with a 5.16 earned run average in five second-half starts. After going six or more innings in 15 of his first 18 starts, Gausman has made it to the sixth just once in his last six outings.
Theories run the gamut as to why Gausman has fallen to earth, and the Giants are crossing their fingers he approaches the form that made him a National League All-Star. Manager Gabe Kapler said he saw signs of progress against the Mets.
“I thought it was the best version of Kevin in several starts, despite the outcome, and the fact that he left having given up some runs and wasn’t able to get too deep into the game,” Kapler said Tuesday. “I really thought he was excellent.”
Was Gausman, who was 39-51 before he joined the Giants, simply pitching over his head the first half of the season, with an inevitable correction to come? Did real life intervene when Gausman took a family leave break when his wife had issues with her pregnancy, which thankfully ended with a healthy baby daughter?
As for actual pitching, what happened to all those swings and misses at splitters in the dirt which helped him pile up 169 strikeouts, the fifth-highest total in baseball?
Hitters were apparently paying attention, and their reluctance to be added to the strikeout list has led to watching splitters go by rather than swinging the bat. Gausman said he was encouraged by his splitter Monday night.
“II thought from the get-go I was throwing some really good ones,” Gausman said. “To be honest, it’s just a matter if they’re going to swing at them or not.”
Catcher Buster Posey believes he saw progress as well.
“I thought this was a step in the right direction for sure,” Posey said. “Fastball had good life, his split was more consistent, threw some really good ones.”
Although Gausman has a slider and a change-up, the Giants sold him on basically being a two-pitch pitcher, and the good news is his fastball broke 97 miles per hour against the Mets. He pitched up in the strike zone, and the Mets fouled off a lot of pitches.
“The fastball velocity and the carry was better, and I think he was commanding the ball better at the top of the zone,” Kapler said. “Foul balls are always going to be tough for a pitcher who’s a two-pitch mix guy.”
Next up for Gausman will be in Oakland Saturday against the Athletics, with an eye toward getting him past the sixth inning.
While Gausman is the most problematic of the starting staff, the three other than Webb haven’t been at their best in recent starts.
DeSclafani (11-5), who had given up 29 hits in 24 innings entering Wednesday’s game against the Mets, came out after 1 2/3 innings with an ankle injury after covering first base, meaning it’s likely the Giants could be looking to Triple-A Sacramento to fill a spot in the rotation at least temporarily. DeSclafani missed a recent start with what the Giants called “shoulder fatigue.”
Wood (10-3) has followed up nicely after Giants losses, as San Francisco is 11-0 when he starts following a loss. But in his last six starts, Wood has given up 36 hits in 32 innings and has a 5.34 ERA.
As for Cueto (7-6), he’s 35 years old and is progressing in a throwing program while on the injured list with a right flexor strain and spent time on the IL earlier in the year with a lat strain. The company line is Cueto will miss one start, maybe two.
Tyler Beede, meanwhile, a former first-round pick Kapler said the club had targeted for “big, meaningful starts this season,” is done for the year with a back injury in what was essentially a lost season.
The Giants made a big splash at the trade deadline in acquiring Kris Bryant from the Chicago Cubs and also brought back Tony Watson to help in the bullpen. The starting rotation was left untouched, with the Dodgers landing Max Scherzer and Toronto getting Jose Berrios from Minnesota.
Scherzer joins a staff that includes Walker Buehler and last year’s World Series hero Jose Urias in a playoff series. Maybe even Clayton Kershaw if he can get healthy. The Milwaukee Brewers, running away with the N.L. Central, have three potential shutdown starters in Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff.
If Gausman could approach his first-half performance and with the progress of Webb, the Giants can be confident of matching pitchers of that quality in the playoffs. If not, they’ll, they’ll get a lot of 4- and a 5-plus inning starts, tax their bullpen and depend on a regular-season magic they may not be possible to duplicate in a postseason.
Webb, by the way, has his clubhouse locker near Gausman and swears by him. He’s presently in a groove similar to what Gausman experienced in the first half.
“That’s my locker mate. We don’t talk too much about baseball, but I’ve learned so much from him,” Webb said. “More than you could imagine. I always go to him no matter what.”
The Giants will need both at the front of their rotation to do any damage beyond simply making the playoffs.