Cueto stumbles as Giants continue to fall

Dia de Cueto wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

When Johnny Cueto takes the mound there’s a good chance his team will see a quality start (he has 15), a dominant start. His offense tends to respond accordingly, able to provide enough production to hand Cueto a win–his 13 still stand as second-most in the National League.

Cueto, instead, buried that chance early on with a 39-pitch, three-run second inning that ultimately decided the Nationals’ (60-42) 4-2 win over the Giants (59-43) Thursday night. San Francisco has now lost 10 of their last 12 games.

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the Giants clubhouse at AT&T Park.

That second-inning killer seemed never ending; it started with Wilson Ramos‘ leadoff broken bat single and spun out of control when Cueto couldn’t find a third out.

He stood one strike away from getting his team back in the dugout, but Danny Espinosa, Tanner Roark and Trea Turner knocked RBI singles in rapid fire. He had no answers:

“Just a bad inning. I was just trying to get out but, unfortunately, it didn’t go my way.”

Cueto can be a strikeout machine when he has certain pitches working–especially his changeup — but acknowledged those strikes weren’t there tonight:

“You try to do your best and sometimes it’s frustrating when you’re not a strike-throwing machine. I just left those strikes out there.”

Daniel Murphy flew out with the bases loaded to end the nightmare-ish second inning, but Cueto was already 57 pitches deep.

Joe Panik‘s return didn’t spark the offense like Bruce Bochy and his team might have hoped. They went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. They couldn’t even capitalize on Brandon Crawford‘s one-out triple in the fourth; he was picked off on the base path after a mis-read wild pitch.

The issue stemmed from poor at bats in crucial moments. Giants bats didn’t force Tanner Roark to make many big pitches–he faced little adversity inning-by-inning–allowing him to cruise through the game with four hits in seven innings.

A ninth inning rally was one big hit away from a magnificent comeback. Brandon Belt singled off Jonathan Papelbon and Mac Williamson worked a walk, prompting Dusty Baker to call in Oliver Perez. Pinch hitter Trevor Brown answered that call with a walk to load the bases with one out.

Some sloppy Nats defense on Gregor Blanco‘s sharp ground ball allowed Belt to score for the Giants second run–a bad stop and throw from third baseman Anthony Rendon left everyone safe.

Denard Span struck out swinging–unable to continue the rally against his old team — and Angel Pagan followed suit with the game ending swing-and-a-miss. They’d tack just the one run onto the one Conor Gillaspie plated on a fielder’s choice play in the second inning.

The Giants offense couldn’t win this one on defensive sorcery, and they shouldn’t rely on that, either. It’s been a while since they’ve felt that big-hit jolt, said Bruce Bochy:

“Timely hits is what wins you games and they [The Nationals] got them.”

He added:

“We did such a good job battling back there in the ninth, man, we could have used that big hit.”

The dead offense magnified Cueto’s mishap of a second inning; he held the Nats scoreless through the rest of his outing, but pitch count caught up to him. Cueto didn’t seem frustrated, spewing familiar words about the offensive woes:

“Eventually the bat spell will end. Every team goes through a bat spell.”

This bat spell, though, has been particularly dry this second half. That spell is magnified by the pitching staff’s second-half 4.97 ERA. The hill is not too steep to climb, but to this offense any deficit appears as a mountain.

The rut could be attributed to relatively high expectations; the Giants sprinted to the end of a great first half with a lineup that consisted of a few Sacramento River Cats with Opening Day starters sprinkled in the mix.

The offense looks uninspired and the scrappy team that once stood atop them all may have run its course. In other words, Hunter Pence and Matt Duffy need to come back. Panik needs to get back into his groove. The starting pitchers are human, even Madison Bumgarner.

There’s a silver lining, if you really want to scrounge out some good news: The Giants did not give up a home run tonight. They’re averaging 2.2 home runs per game, here’s hoping the Nats aren’t storing the unspent homers for Friday night’s showdown against Jeff Samardzija.

The Giants are 2-10 since the All-Star break and the Dodgers are sneaking up behind them, just two games back, in the NL West.

Also, the Nationals have overtaken the Giants for the second-best record in the league. The Cubs (60-40) have regained the top spot.

Giants acquire infielder Eduardo Nunez

The Giants announced a trade during Cueto’s second-inning collapse: 23-year-old LHP Adalberto Mejia was traded to the Minnesota Twins for All-Star infielder Eduardo Nunez.

Nunez will provide some much-needed relief for an injured and short infield. Bobby Evans made it clear that Matt Duffy is still the everyday third baseman. Nunez can also play shortstop and second base, so clearly he will be the go-to guy to give Crawford, Panik and Duffy days off.

He’s an ideal go-to infielder, really. He led the American League in stolen bases with 26 with a solid .300 average. Bochy can turn to a different hot bat should his home-grown guys go cold. Said Bochy:

“He’s having a good year, he’s going to give us depth. He’s got speed, made the All-Star team and is going to allow me to rest some guys. … He’s been swinging the bat well so we hope he’s going to help this offense.”

The Giants lose top pitching prospect in Mejia, who held a career 3.27 ERA in the minors. He had a 2.81 ERA this season with 101 strikeouts and 1.11 WHIP.


Shayna Rubin is SFBay’s San Francisco Giants beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShaynaRubin on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Giants baseball.