Every major league team has flaws. The good ones, you will be stunned to learn, have fewer of them. And they’re better equipped to minimize the ones they do have.
The Giants are a deeply flawed team. You knew that before they got swept away in a four-game series at Dodger Stadium for the first time since the Clinton administration. You’re acutely aware of it now. They have the oldest position-player group in the National League. They began the season clear-eyed that they would lack range in the field and lose days to the injured list. They thought they factored in the balls in play their veterans wouldn’t reach and the time they’d spend in the trainer’s room. They believed they had a handle on their flaws. They were confident they could minimize them — just as they did nearly all of last season. The secret sauce to winning a franchise record 107 games in 2021 wasn’t having a perfect roster. It was how well the Giants concealed their imperfections.
But the current volume of injuries and health-related limitations has proved difficult to overcome, and as a result, their flaws have been open wounds. Against a team like the Dodgers, those wounds can result in septic shock.
They lost 7-4 on Sunday after Yermín Mercedes, a converted catcher attempting to play left field, failed to catch a fly ball with an expected average of .100. Freddie Freeman was credited with a gift-wrapped double, the Dodgers snapped a tie with a three-run rally and the Giants couldn’t punch back while getting swept in a four-game series here for the first time since 1995.
When you put Yermin Mercedes in left field, you get … Yermin Mercedes in left field.
but why what hey in left field?
Well, because one of Evan Longoria’s 36-year-old hamstrings seized up when he ran out a groundball Saturday afternoon, sending him back to the 10-day injured list and leaving the Giants another right-handed bat short to start Sunday against Clayton Kershaw .
And also because Mike Yastrzemski’s left calf tightened up following a collision with the short wall in foul ground Saturday, rendering him unavailable except in an extreme emergency.
It’s one thing to start Mercedes in left field, cross your fingers that his defense isn’t accompanied by sad-trombone sound effects and hope that he contributes something with the bat to make it worth the risk — which he did, actually, when he doubled in each of his first two at-bats against Kershaw. But it’s another thing for Mercedes to continue to roam the expanses of left field in the seventh inning of a tie game. Ordinarily, the Giants would’ve taken those two doubles to the cash window and gotten Mercedes out in the fifth inning, when he was due up and the Dodgers replaced Kershaw with right-handed reliever Yency Almonte. But Giants manager Gabe Kapler couldn’t employ his familiar line change. Without Yastrzemski available, Kapler didn’t feel comfortable burning Joc Pederson or LaMonte Wade Jr. so early.
One injury compelled the Giants to make a suboptimal (to put it kindly) lineup choice. Another injury prevented them from minimizing the risk associated with that choice. Welcome to the story of the Giants’ season.
Every team has injuries but we’ve reached the point when you need a magnifying glass to read the injury section of the Giants game notes. pic.twitter.com/qcc0HdKGCW
— Andrew Baggarly (@extrabaggs) July 25, 2022
And so, Freeman’s fly ball went up. And Freeman’s fly ball came down. And the Giants were heavily exposed as the lesser team in this rivalry.
It’s wild when you think about it: The Giants led in the eighth inning Thursday, they were tied in the eighth inning Friday, they trailed all game but managed to bring the winning run to the plate in the ninth inning Saturday and they were tied again in the seventh inning Sunday. Yet when the series concluded, you had the feeling that the Giants never really played well enough to give themselves a chance. They made four errors in the series and there were countless other physical mistakes the Dodgers were able to leverage into an extra base or an extended inning.
The postgame Giants clubhouse Sunday remained closed to the media for 28 minutes after the final out — it’s supposed to open after 10 minutes — but Kapler said he didn’t address the team. Instead, he engaged in a series of what he described as individual conversations. His public message was more succinct.
“Not good enough,” Kapler said. “Really frustrating. A level of play that’s not going to be acceptable for us. There’s no other way to classify it. It’s just not good enough.”
Over the past couple days, I was reflecting on the Giants’ defensive instability and what a glaring difference it’s been from last season despite little roster turnover, and I wondered how much of a difference it’s made for the Giants to be without Buster Posey behind the plate. As Giants president Farhan Zaidi said at Posey’s retirement press conference in November, “We had some nice moments in that 2020 season (when Posey opted out), but I look back on it now and I realize we were lost. I don’t think I fully appreciated that until we had you back this year and the difference you made to this team. Everything we were able to accomplish was because of you.”
Obviously, Posey isn’t the one clanking a groundball on the infield or failing to cut off a drive to the gap. But for more than a decade, we’ve heard his teammates praise his calm and stabilizing presence. How much if any of the Giants’ current instability could be chalked up to the absence of that presence?
Kapler, while quick to extol Posey’s elite feel for the game, wasn’t sure he saw a correlation. Neither did Zaidi, who viewed the premise as a convenient excuse. Bench coach Kai Correa, who built his reputation in the game as a brilliant infield instructor, pondered the question for a moment before answering. No, he didn’t think Posey’s presence would have prevented many of the avoidable errors and defensive shortcomings that have taxed Giants pitchers and cost them ballgames.
“But I’ll say this,” Correa said. “He is a preventer of compounding mistakes.”
An outfielder could muff a fly ball. An infielder could fumble an exchange. A loosely turned double-play grounder could result in just one out. But maybe some of those innings didn’t blow up last year because Posey would call a pitch to help get his teammates back in the dugout. Or he could contribute to a rally in the next inning that put the Giants back in front.
“It could be a timely hit or a timely play or a timely conversation,” Correa said. “I think what you’re talking about is not fully appreciating his greatness in all the things below the surface.”
Case in point: Freeman’s fly ball in the seventh Sunday came with one out and the bases empty. It didn’t wreck the afternoon by itself. It took a pitching change from Dom Leone to Tyler Rogers, and hits by three of the next four Dodgers batters (three of them left-handed hitters, and yes, left-handed relief has become a roster weakness as well), for the inning to turn into a derailment. And because Trayce Thompson capped the rally with an RBI double, the Giants got an earful from an exuberant fan cheering in the first row above their dugout. Warriors star Klay Thompson chugged a beer and high-fived Dodger fans and had a grand time.
Whether it was a seventh inning that got away from them Sunday or Sam Long throwing an ill-advised curveball that Cody Bellinger hit for a grand slam Friday or Alex Cobb throwing eight consecutive splitters while giving up hits to Trea Turner and Freeman to set up a run in the first inning Sunday, there are moments when the Giants’ lack of experience behind the plate has cost them — often when they’ve already given away an out in the field.
“This is what happens when you lose four at Dodger Stadium and get swept and just get your ass kicked,” Kapler said. “It’s something I’ve said in the past and it’s perfectly appropriate and applicable here: not making enough pitches, not making enough plays, not getting enough big hits, and the other team doing more of that than you did. Was our defense not at our best at times? surah But there’s other things you could easily point to and micro-moments throughout the series when we just didn’t get the job done. We have to own that.”
They have to be realistic about it, too. It’s a totally unfair ask to expect rookie catcher Joey Bart to have Posey’s mental Rolodex to master all of those micro-moments.
“There’s nobody who has the experience that Buster does or has the feel for the game that Buster does,” Kapler said. “Joey is very much a young, developing catcher who just doesn’t have a huge file yet. He hasn’t seen things play out over and over and over. At some point, I think Joey will make a visit and he’ll say, ‘Look, it’s a great time to bounce a curveball’ or to have enough of a feel for Cody Bellinger’s swing to go, ‘I can go fastball up and out of the zone and maybe get a chase here.’ But that’s not Joey’s fault that he doesn’t have the experience and the feel that Buster did.”
So how are the Giants most missing Buster Posey?
“I think we’re missing him in every way,” Kapler said, “We miss him in the clubhouse, although I actually think the clubhouse is in a really good space. It’s an even-keeled group that rides some waves but for the most part is a connected group. For a club that’s had as many challenges as we’ve had, that’s been good. Between the lines, we really miss him. You’re talking about a middle-of-the-lineup bat, steady, and he has all the experience, the savvy, understanding the right time to make a mound visit. And his presence in the dugout — very calm, very prepared, sometimes fiery.
“So you miss all those things, and yeah, it does matter for us. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that Joey is working his tail off to catch up. It’s a lot. It’s a fire hose. All while he’s trying to make progress at the plate as well.”
Posey is enjoying the gracious life in Georgia. He isn’t coming back. A few others are, at least. Longoria’s hamstring strain is more a mental frustration, given all the ways his body has betrayed him over the past two years, than a significant physical injury. He hopes to be back in 10 days. Brandon Crawford an received injection in his knee and is taking grounders with the hope of returning when eligible Tuesday. Catcher Curt Casali is swinging a bat and targeting an early-August return from his strained oblique. Tommy La Stella is also nearing a return from his Triple-A rehab assignment, although his extreme lack of mobility in the field has made him an awkward fit for the roster. Because La Stella is little more than a designated hitter at this point and has made a team-high 27 starts at DH, it’s resulted in a hefty Joc Pederson starting more games in the outfield than the Giants probably intended when they signed him — yet another way this roster hasn’t been able to minimize its flaws.
The problematic proliferation of DH types on the roster is something the Giants are seeking to address prior to the Aug. 2 trade deadline, as sources have told Ken Rosenthal. So maybe by this time next week, the Giants will have someone like Ramon Laureano or Myles Straw setting down a duffel bag in their clubhouse and racing down balls in center field.
As for Yastrzemski, his calf had been a nagging issue before he stepped awkwardly at the base of the wall Saturday, then woke up “super sore” Sunday. He couldn’t gauge whether he’d be available when the Giants begin a three-game series Monday in Arizona.
“I have no idea,” Yastrzemski said. “Gonna wake up in the morning and see how it feels and go from there.”
And there’s your pull quote for Giants baseball this season.
(Photo: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)