SAN FRANCISCO — The vibe got a bit tense in manager Gabe Kapler’s office following the Giants’ 6-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday.
Kapler had pinch-hit for rookie outfielder Wade Meckler with the bases loaded in the seventh inning and the Giants trailing by five runs. Two days earlier, while Meckler was making his major league debut, the situation was eerily identical: Bases loaded in the seventh inning and the Giants trailing by five runs. That time, Kapler made a different choice. He let Meckler face a left-hander.
Following Wednesday’s loss, one of the beat reporters asked Kapler to explain how the two situations differed.
Kapler didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t use profanity. He certainly didn’t get up from his couch and rearrange the contents of his office. He didn’t say or do anything that will survive for decades on underground tapes. As postgame sessions go, this one didn’t meet the minimum standards to be called a tirade. But with the cameras rolling, Kapler broke a fourth wall of sorts. He responded not to the question but to the questioner.
“I’m absolutely happy to make the distinction,” Kapler said. “But I’m just curious if you know the distinction.”
The young reporter kept his composure. Is it just Slater vs. Ramos? On Wednesday, Kapler had Austin Slater available on the bench. On Monday, his top available right-handed hitting option would’ve been rookie Heliot Ramos.
“Yeah,” Kapler said. “This is not to disrespect Ramos in any way but I think Ramos has, like, four career pinch-hit at-bats. Slater is one of the best pinch-hitters in baseball. So I don’t mind explaining something. But I sometimes wonder if the question is, ‘Hey, can you say it?’ Or if that distinction isn’t clear? I’m just curious about that.”
Managers meet with reporters before and after every game. They must be prepared to field every manner of question on a range of topics including the inane and unexpected. They must be prepared to repeat themselves ad nauseum when the same questions get asked in different cities. Through it all, they must keep their poise. And that isn’t always so easy. Truth be told, they must suffer their share of fools. But this was not one of those moments. This was not a foolish question. It was a pretty basic one. Neither inane nor unexpected.
Kapler’s response was to get defensive and to question the reporter’s intent.
It was a similar situation. So I think people would be interested to learn and hear you explain it.
“Sure,” Kapler said. “So again, Slater is one of the best pinch-hitters in baseball, particularly against left-handed pitching, over the course of the last three seasons. And so in that situation, we trust he’s going to go up there and have a good at-bat. He didn’t. He grounded into a double play. … He’s just had a stretch where he hasn’t had a lot of success.”
It was the right move to make. It was a move that has worked many times in the past. It didn’t work on Wednesday. Nothing seems to be working for the Giants right now. And the frustration is beginning to show.
The Giants were 15-5 when using an opener. Now they’ve lost five of their last six with the gambit. Their lineup supplied steady power in the first two months of the season. Now they’re stuck in a two-month funk in which they’ve been the least productive offense in the major leagues. Their bench and depth were among their greatest strengths. Now they either cannot get the matchups they want, or when they do, they ground into double plays.
Through it all, they must keep their poise.
It’s particularly bleak for their right-handed hitters outside of Wilmer Flores, all of whom are hurt (AJ Pollock, Mitch Haniger) or in a collective funk (Slater, J.D. Davis). And that’s a serious problem when so many of their left-handed hitters (Joc Pederson, LaMonte Wade Jr., Michael Conforto) either need to be shielded from left-handed pitching or haven’t faced them in so long that they’ve forgotten how to hit them.
The Giants are built to win by being greater than the sum of their parts. But the parts still matter. And too many of them aren’t working. That’s a difficult period for any ballclub to weather. It’s an especially difficult one for the Giants, who require buy-in from pitchers who are accustomed to starting games and from hitters who do not want to get tapped on the shoulder with the game on the line. It’s a heck of a lot easier to get and maintain that buy-in when the strategy works and the team is winning.
The Giants are not winning. They’ve dropped four consecutive series. They’ve lost 10 of their last 11 road games. They’re about to go to Atlanta and Philadelphia, where they’ll play the National League’s top offensive team followed by the league’s hottest hitting team this month. If the Giants receive the same offensive output that they’ve received ever since their 10-game win streak ended in June, then they’ll be roadkill waiting to happen — and in even more trouble when the Braves arrive to begin a homestand next week.
So everything is being tested now: Their talent and their tenets, their culture and their cool.
Kapler said he spoke with his hitting coaches about adjustments that might be made to stoke an offense that hit .114 (5 for 44) with runners in scoring position while losing four of six on the homestand. But by and large, the Giants are committed to their philosophies. They’ll keep making most of the same game-level choices. They’ll keep using openers. They’ll keep trusting platoon matchups. This is what they believe in. This is how they’re built.
“We’re trying to make as many decisions at the margins that will help us win as many games as possible,” Kapler said. “I actually think we had almost the identical situation earlier in the year when Slates and others were getting big hits and there was some conversation about how cool it was. And I said, ‘Look, it’s not always going to be like this. Some days guys are going to come up in the biggest moments and they’re going to strike out and ground into double plays.’ And when that happens, I’m totally expecting these sorts of conversations and questions.”
It just isn’t easy when those questions become daily. Ad nauseum is no fun for anyone.
The Rays scored a run off right-hander Ryan Walker, but the opener wasn’t the reason the Giants lost Wednesday’s series finale. Bulk starter Ross Stripling allowed five runs in six innings and allowed three home runs, including an inside-the-parker from pinch hitter Luke Raley that was probably struck the hardest. The drive hit off the brick arcade in the deepest part of right-center, ricocheted sideways and appeared to skip off the top of the center field fence a few times before rolling on the warning track into left center.
🚨INSIDE-THE-PARK HOME RUN ALERT🚨 pic.twitter.com/piGtsMeRXS
— Bally Sports Sun: Rays (@BallyRays) August 16, 2023
“Maybe that ends the home run curse I’ve been going through,” said Stripling, who has allowed 20 homers in 78 2/3 innings.
A tight lower back isn’t going to help matters. Kapler revealed that Stripling has been dealing with more back trouble. The right-hander called it mild and nowhere near the discomfort he felt when he went on the injured list in May. His pride might have been hurting more. Stripling said that before facing Raley, he gave a thumbs-up to the dugout to let them know he had gone over the scouting reports. Then he gave up booming contact on the first pitch. “Felt kind of dumb in real time there,” he said.
Stripling said he expected to be physically fine. But if the Giants seek to give Stripling more time off, it could provide the opening to promote top left-handed pitching prospect Kyle Harrison from Triple-A Sacramento.
Harrison is coming off an eye-opening start on Tuesday against Tacoma: Four innings, seven strikeouts, zero walks. Harrison also allowed a three-run home run. But he’s struck out 11 without issuing a walk over his last two outings. It’s not a prerequisite that he build his pitch count past 100 or show that he can complete five innings. Those usual caveats don’t apply for the Giants, who could use Harrison to go through an opposing lineup once and then hand the baseball to another bulk pitcher.
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) August 16, 2023
The biggest challenge might be how to get him on the roster. Unless someone goes on the IL, the only pitchers with options are Walker and Tristan Beck. Walker isn’t going anywhere. And the Giants can only option Beck one more time this season and probably don’t want to box themselves in while there are still 41 games on the schedule. Perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking if they designate left-hander Alex Wood, seeing how he’s been used in mop-up relief on this homestand. Then again, other teams would be lining up to claim Wood. It wouldn’t be this front office’s finest moment if they gave Wood away for free when they could’ve traded him (even if the return wouldn’t have been great, at least they could’ve steered him out of the NL West) a little more than two weeks ago.
Hypotheticals aside, the other challenge will be to create a soft landing spot for Harrison. It certainly wouldn’t come against the Braves, whose .890 OPS against left-handed pitching is the best in the major leagues.
But the Phillies are loaded with lefties. And Stripling’s dinger issues would make him especially prone there. So we’ll either see Harrison’s debut next week at Citizens Bank Park or we’ll probably have to wait a while longer.
Late-inning matchup questions aside, the Giants will need Meckler to face left-handed pitching and produce against it. Their .679 OPS against lefties is 27th in the majors. Only the Colorado Rockies, Oakland A’s and Cleveland Guardians have been worse.
The Giants have to be confident that Meckler, an eighth-round pick in last year’s draft, is capable of providing that production, otherwise there’s no way that they would have promoted him so quickly. Not only are the Giants dedicating him a 40-man roster spot that could’ve been used to shield someone from the Rule 5 draft this offseason, but they sacrificed a productive outfielder to create a vacancy. They designated Luis Gonzalez for assignment, and because he’s been outrighted before, he can elect free agency. That’s what Gonzalez intends to do, so I understand. Given the glut of outfielders on the Giants’ 40-man roster, there isn’t much of an avenue to playing time for him. It’s a tough ending for a hitter who just last year became the first Giants position player to win an NL Rookie of the Month award since Buster Posey in 2010.
Meckler wouldn’t have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft until after the 2025 season. There was only one reason to rush him to the big leagues: The Giants are desperate for offense and they didn’t acquire any at the trade deadline.
So Meckler is in the big leagues after playing 92 minor league games and taking 394 plate appearances. He might be the fastest Giants position prospect to reach the major leagues since Will Clark, who played just 65 minor league games and took 289 plate appearances before making his debut on opening day in 1986. That decision seemed to work out all right.
(Top photo of Austin Slater: Michael Zagaris / Oakland Athletics / Getty Images)