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Strickland chokes up lead, Marlins sink Giants

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Game one of a rematch series between the Giants and Marlins at AT&T Park Monday initially looked like a triumphant retort for San Francisco, who went down three games to one in a series in Miami last week.

But a rare meltdown from closer Hunter Strickland marred one of Andrew Suárez‘s best start’s of the season, and the Marlins (39-44) snatched the “W” from the Giants (35-88) and Suarez (ND, 2-4, 4.70 ERA) in the ninth inning, scratching out a 5-4 win.

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

Strickland (L, 3-3, 2.84 ERA) was succinct when it came to discussing the ninth inning after the game:

“It sucked in general.”

The big reliever looked slightly shell-shocked in the wake of the unexpected loss:

“That’s unacceptable. I mean, Suárez went out there and did a heck of a job today. ‘Sammy’ [Sam Dyson]  came in and picked him up, and obviously I let him down.”

Suárez, like his colleagues in the starting rotation, has struggled to make it beyond the fifth inning. But Monday he threw just 41 pitches through the first four innings. He ultimately managed 6-1/3 innings, making it to the sixth inning for just the fourth time in his eleventh start season, while matching his season high with seven strikeouts.

The Giants offense offered strong support for Suarez’s gem as well, going after Miami starter Caleb Smith (ND, 5-7, 3.91 ERA) early and chasing the rookie lefty from the game in the fifth inning.

Buster Posey led off the second inning with a towering ball out to the warning track in center field. It looked like a very loud out, but rookie Marlins centerfielder Lewis Brinson misjudged it and it fell in for two bags. A batter later Joe Panik singled Posey home to get the Giants on the board and bring Pablo Sandoval to the plate.

Sandoval has quietly become a patient hitter, something first noted in an article by Jeff Sullivan from FanGraphs. Under most people’s noses he’s stopped swinging at first pitches this year, something he did at a 44 percent clip in 2017. In 2018 he swings at fewer than five percent of first pitches.

When asked about the new plate philosophy ahead of Monday’s game he wouldn’t say much:

“What happens if you don’t throw the first pitch for a strike? I’m ahead in the count, so then I get a pitch to hit.”

With Panik on first, he watched Smith’s first pitch fall below the zone, and then, he did indeed get a pitch to hit, a 92-mph fastball that he swatted over the left field wall for a two-run homer (6), giving the Giants a 3-0 lead.

San Francisco would add one more in the next inning on a Mac Williamson RBI single to allow a 4-0 cushion that seemed like it should’ve been enough. Even after Suarez battled through a rough fifth inning in which he gave up three singles and a double before recording an out, he ultimately got out of the inning allowing just two runs.

Sam Dyson came on with one out in the seventh after Suarez walked Brinson on four pitches, and promptly induced a grounder up the middle from Miguel Rojas. It was a tricky play and with the resident Gold Glove shortstop, Brandon Crawford out with the birth of his son Bryson Monday night, Kelby Tomlinson came through in the clutch to spear the ball behind second base and makes the play. With a flick of his wrist, Tomlinson turned the double play to end the inning and preserve Suarez’s masterpiece.

And so Strickland came into a 4-2 ballgame in the ninth, all teed up for his 15th save. But he seemed to unravel almost immediately. He gave up a walk to Brian Anderson to lead off the inning and J.T. Realmuto followed up with a double to left field to bring the Marlins within one run of tying. It only went downhill from there as Strickland walked Justin Bour and gave up singles to Brinson and Rojas. Brinson’s single tied the ballgame, but Bochy said he liked the matchup between Strickland and Rojas and had faith in his closer, so he opted to leave him in.

When Rojas, too, added on to put the Marlins on top, Bochy finally put Strickland out of his misery. On his way out, there was a brief, muted kerfuffle between the Georgian righty and Brinson on third, but the fiery reliever did not elaborate on what exactly that was all about.

Strickland said:

“He got a hit. I don’t know, I was just in the moment and not very happy with myself.”

Tony Watson got the next two batters out to end the inning but the wind had blown out of the Giants sails and the bottom of the ninth inning felt like a formality as the Giants went down in order.

Before everyone gets out the pitchforks with visions of the 2014 post-season Strickland home run giveaways dancing before their eyes, though, it’s worth noting that he’s been beyond reliable closing out ballgames in 2018. Monday was just the fourth time he’s blown a save this year in 18 chances, and only the second time he’s given up more than one run in an appearance all year. Before coughing up three runs to the Marlins he’d given up just nine runs total on the season.

Manager Bruce Bochy was behind Strickland all the way, forcefully putting to rest any notions that he might hesitate to continue using Strickland in the ninth.

The skipper said:

“I think you look at the job he’s done, and there’s no reason to have a leash on him. He’s really pitched well, I mean the numbers show that. He probably would take a couple pitches back tonight I’m sure, but you know you gotta stay behind these guys especially when they’re doing a great job and that’s why he had a shot there in the ninth.”

The numbers Bochy likely refers to are things like a 1.23 WHIP, and an ERA that even after jumping by nearly an entire whole number in one outing, is still sub-three.

Strickland was composed when he described his next moves in the wake of his uncharacteristic performance in the homestand opener:

“You know, obviously I’m not thrilled about it right now I didn’t do my job, you know so I’ll go watch video figure out what I gotta do to get better and go from there.”

Up Next

The Giants play game two of three against the Marlins Tuesday, with first pitch at 7:15 p.m. Dereck Rodriguez (1-1, 4.34 ERA) will make his fourth career start going up against Marlins righty Dan Straily. Straily threw the pitch that broke Evan Longoria‘s left hand last week.


Julie Parker is SFBay’s San Francisco Giants beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @InsideThePark3r on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Giants baseball.

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