The Giants scored before the fourth inning Saturday for the first time this season. It was only the beginning of a riotous offensive attack led by Steven Duggar and Brandon Belt, resulting in a 6-4 victory over the Rays.
Tampa Bay (6-3) employed an opener in Ryne Stanek, and the righty held San Francisco (3-6) hitless through the first two innings in a fashion familiar for the Giants. But the offensive dam finally broke for two runs in the third, and the home club washed the Rays away with a four-run fifth-inning uprising.
The Giants have struggled mightily against starters this season and that pattern continued Saturday, even without the traditional starter-to-bullpen progression. As soon as Stanek (ND, 0-0, 0.00 ERA) exited the ballgame after the second, San Francisco set to work dismantling the Rays’ strategy.
Facing southpaw Jalen Beeks in his first at-bat, the Giants new center fielder Kevin Pillar led off with a push bunt on the first-base side of the mound, beating out a hurried throw that first baseman Ji-Man Choi couldn’t handle, to spark the rally.
It was the first of several contributions from the former Blue Jay in the win, and he said he was excited for the chance to show Giants fans at home what he’s made of:
“It felt good. I feel like that’s what they acquired me for, just kind of to roam that big center field and come up with some hustle-plays, steal some bases [and] find ways to get on base.”
Joe Panik followed, drawing a walk, and during the at-bat Pillar notched his first stolen base of the year then took third on a throw from catcher Mike Zunino that ended up in center field. Jeff Samardzija executed a successful sacrifice bunt to move Panik over.
The Giants were absolutely dreadful at bunting across the board in 2018, and as such these two bunts were notable in that they both achieved their respective objectives.
“‘Boch’ did a good job before I went up there, he just told me to get it going. [They’re] a team I’m familiar with, they play that shift and [bunting] is not something I do a whole lot but it’s something that I probably should do a little bit more.”
Duggar followed Samardzija with a sacrifice fly to get San Francisco on the board, and a Belt single sent Panik home to give the Giants a 2-1 lead.
The rally was heartening not least of all for Samardzija (ND, 0-0, 2.79 ERA) who struggled in the first inning with poor control allowing a run on a walk and a Choi double.
Choi has tortured the Giants in both games of the series, going 3-for-4 with a double off Dereck Rodríguez and a pair of singles off the bullpen Friday, and knocking in two RBIs on a pair of doubles Saturday.
Fans could have been forgiven for thinking, “Here we go again…” in the top of the fifth when Samardzija ran out of steam. He said he felt confident and that his outing went better than his last time out. He used his slider quite a bit, which is a significant change in approach for him because in the past his fastball has been his bread and butter.
“I think I was getting some swings and misses on balls down in the zone in those middle innings when it was going well and then they kind of changed their approach a little bit and kinda stayed short and put the ball in play [in the fifth].”
Samardzija served Pham a 90-mph 0-1 cutter down the middle that Pham lobbed into right-center field. Off the bat it looked like a no-doubt double that would fall between Pillar and Duggar and break the game wide open, but Pillar had other plans. He sprinted toward the ball and made a diving catch turning it into a sacrifice fly, good for only one RBI.
When asked if he expected to make the catch off the bat, Pillar said he always expects to make every catch.
“You’ll get to know me. I’m super competitive, especially on the defensive side and especially when I’m not swinging the bat the way I’m capable of hitting. I’ve always had this mindset that if I’m not getting hits, other people don’t get hits, so it’s probably not a good idea to hit it in my direction cause I’m gonna try to take hits away.”
Pillar is batting .103 (2-for-29) in nine games this season.
Choi followed with the second double of the afternoon to put the Rays ahead 3-2 and chase Samardzija from the game.
Travis Bergen (W, 1-0, 3.86 ERA) came in to bail Samardzija out, though. With runners on second and third with two outs he induced a sharp fly-out to Pillar from Avisaíl García to close out the inning and earn his first career win.
The Giants offense went on to show 31,828 fans that the third inning wasn’t just a two-hit wonder when they staged a resurgence in the home half of the fifth.
With Panik’s second walk of the game to lead off, rookie Connor Joe came to the plate for Bergen. Joe, who was acquired in a trade with Cincinnati two weeks ago, has had an even rougher start than the team as a whole, riding an oh-fer 2019 in his first 13 plate appearances, drawing ire from fans.
But facing left-hander Ryan Yarbrough (L, 1-1, 6.14 ERA), he finally earned a batting average with a single to left to bring up Duggar and earn a standing ovation.
Said Manager Bruce Bochy:
“It was great to see him get his first hit. We were getting into the season a little bit, I’m sure he wanted to get that out of the way.”
Duggar swiftly returned the lead to the home dugout with a double to right field to bring his RBI tally to three on the day, and Bochy was pleased with the resilience of Giants bats Saturday.
“I was really glad the way we bounced back. Joe [Panik] started it and for Connor [Joe]–that’s a huge hit–but you have to have somebody drive in the runs and Duggar took care of business.”
Duggar’s performance on both sides of the ball seemed to indicate that switching from center to right field with San Francisco’s acquisition of Pillar hasn’t fazed the 24-year old in his second season.
Pillar said he sees some of himself in the young outfielder and before assuming the center field role this week the veteran checked in with Duggar.
“I think it’s still early in our relationship but I wanted to make sure the first day I started when I was playing center we had a conversation. I don’t want him to feel intimidated I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, I just wanna be one of the guys in this [clubhouse].”
The former Blue Jay said that as he gets acclimated to the new team, ballpark and league, it’s nice to have the comfort of his familiar position but he intends to work on learning other positions and he’s open to do whatever is best for the team.
“I don’t know what the plan is going forward. Once we get through these three early games and I have a little bit more time to go out there and work different angles off the bat in this park we’ll see what happens. I’m definitely willing and wanting to learn these other positions but ultimately its gonna be what the coaches want us to do.”
Pillar also added that he’s been overwhelmed by the positive and open culture in the Giants clubhouse.
“It was the most fun I had on a baseball field this year and coming [into the clubhouse] after a win to see this environment was something I haven’t experienced in all my years in the big leagues so that’s extra motivation to keep winning some games.”
The Giants weren’t done after Duggar’s, fifth-inning double. Belt added on by placing a 93-mph fastball from Yarbrough into the left field bleachers to match Duggar’s three RBIs.
Sam Dyson, Tony Watson and Reyes Moronta combined to shutout the Rays through the sixth, seventh and eighth, and Will Smith (S, 3, 0.00 ERA) earned his third save of the season to snap the Giants three-game skid.
Pillar said the atmosphere in his new environment was especially eye-opening after Saturday’s win, the first since he was acquired Tuesday.
“Just coming into the clubhouse with these lights on and the fog machine, and you just see guys genuinely happy for each other. There’s no one who’s feeling sorry for themselves after struggling at the plate a little or maybe not getting some outs on the mound. You know everyone was genuinely happy for Connor [Joe] getting his first hit and ‘Berg’ getting his first win. I can’t thank these guys enough for just the way they embraced me and made feel part of their family right away.”
A previous version incorrectly referred to Sunday’s Rays starter as Robinson Chirinos, SF Bay regrets this error.