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Giants blow 2-run lead in 9th, but there’s more than the bullpen to blame

ATLANTA — There is no shade and no cover in the visiting bullpen at Truist Park.

Relief pitchers are perched in a three-tiered riser — an open-air opera box, basically — so they can watch the game from above the left-field wall. At times like Wednesday night, when it’s a sticky 95 degrees at first pitch and the sun doesn’t set till the fifth inning, it can get a little soggy out there. So the Atlanta Braves were thoughtful enough to build a small room that relievers can duck into from time to time. It’s a snug space and there’s not much in the way of amenities. But it’s air-conditioned, which is really all that matters.

Sometimes we all need a place to cool off.

That applies to a 24-year-old emerging closer like Giants right-hander Camilo Doval, who threw his glove in frustration Tuesday night and received a talking-to from manager Gabe Kapler. It applies to more seasoned relievers like Jake McGee and Tyler Rogers when they’re entrusted with the ninth inning, as they were Wednesday night. And it applies to a fried fan base when a lead slips away in the ninth and a dominant starting pitching effort gets junked, as it did in the Giants’ 4-3 loss to the Braves.

First, the facts in evidence:

McGee took the mound with a two-run lead and gave half of it back when Dansby Swanson won a seven-pitch battle with a home run. Then Marcell Ozuna lashed a single past first baseman Brandon Belt. Ozuna caught center fielder Austin Slater by surprise when he tagged on a deep fly ball, and he scored the tying run on a single from William Contreras. Rogers entered and Contreras stole his way into scoring position on a strikeout pitch to Orlando Arcia. Then Adam Duvall, erstwhile Giants farmhand, lined a single to center and Contreras beat the throw to the plate as the Braves rushed the field to celebrate their second walk-off victory in this series and their 17th win in their last 20 games.

The individual who lost the most in this confluence of events was Giants left-hander Carlos Rodón, who took a no-hitter into the fifth and a shutout into the seventh and struck out 10 and generated 23 swings-and-misses — three short of matching his career high — against one of the better lineups in the major leagues. Rodón was in line for a winning decision before it got snatched away.

He was also the individual who provided the most salient comment in the postgame clubhouse.

“Listen, man, it’s baseball,” Rodón said. “That’s a very good team.”

Let’s all duck into that air-conditioned room for a bit. Because this was a hot night for hot takes, and while some of them might have merit, they’re also a bit reductive in the full analysis.

Upset that Rodón departed after just 91 pitches when he was dealing? That’s fair, but it was also a physically taxing night and Rodón had his most stressful inning in the seventh, when he needed a lineout from Arcia to Belt and a strikeout of Duvall to strand the tying run at third base.

“We had a mutual understanding at the end of the seventh inning that he was emptying the tank there,” Kapler said.

Rodón had thrown exactly 98 pitches in each of his previous three starts, and given his past health challenges, it’s clear that the Giants are making a concerted effort to pace him through the season so he won’t be sucking on vapors in September and potentially beyond. They’ve already seen the difference between Rodón with his A-grade fastball and his B-grade fastball. It was the difference between all those swings-and-misses Wednesday night — all 10 of his strikeouts were swinging — and all the foul balls that engorged his pitch count and led to early exits when he hit a rough patch earlier this season.

Upset that McGee and Rogers are still getting used in high leverage? That’s fair, too, if you glance at the stat sheet. McGee has a 6.87 ERA. Rogers has a 4.96 ERA. They were arguably the Giants’ two most utilized and most important relievers over the entirety of last season, when their bullpen led the major leagues in ERA. They are two reasons why this year’s bullpen, after struggling all through May, is worth minus-0.5 Wins Above Average.

But those numbers don’t reflect the way both pitchers are viewed within the clubhouse or the manager’s office. McGee rediscovered the carry on his fastball after a stint on the injured list, and a quick mental catalog of his outing Wednesday left him with few laments.

“Just got to tip your cap when teams are hot like that, you know?” said McGee, who credited Swanson for spoiling pitches and Ozuna for making hard contact on an ankle-high slider. “I feel like it was their approach. I felt my stuff was good and coming out good.”

“I thought he was fine overall,” Kapler said. “They just put some good swings on him.”

Upset that Doval didn’t appear, or that the Giants haven’t officially anointed a Rod Beck or Robb Nen or Brian Wilson who will get every conventional save situation without fail? That’s also a fair perspective and even Kapler acknowledges it.

“It’s a perfectly reasonable point of view, and my thought would be that Doval has basically acted as our closer for quite some time,” Kapler said. “In this particular case, whether he’s the closer or not, he (wasn’t) available to pitch today.

“He’s thrown a ton of innings. He’s a really important part of our season and our future. We trust the other guys, too. Jake McGee closed a ton of games for us (last year). So we felt we were going to a really good option. But I would understand it from any perspective.”

Doval was down because he’d appeared in the previous two games and four out of five. Kapler wanted to stay away from Dom Leone, too. Whether it was his management of Rodón or Doval or Leone, Kapler continues to be the kid in the Stanford experiment who doesn’t eat the marshmallow. The Giants are playing the long game, which places a premium on pace and preservation, and it’s worked to this point. They are eight games over .500 and in the thick of the NL wild-card picture. They might not be equipped to run as hard for as long as they needed to hold off the Dodgers to win 107 games and capture the division like last season. But burning out too fast, especially with a rickety core of position players, is a sure way to be sitting at home in October.

Now that we’ve worked through the consternation about the bullpen, and while we’re all together here in the air conditioning, let’s use our cooler heads to examine two small things that might have made a tangible difference Wednesday night. The first was Slater’s nonchalance after catching Matt Olson’s fly ball and his surprise when he saw that Ozuna was running. It would have been a different game entirely if he had thrown out Ozuna to empty the bases with two outs.

“I wasn’t totally aware he was tagging,” Slater acknowledged. “I still made a pretty good throw, had a chance. I mean, Flo (Wilmer Flores) didn’t catch the ball so it didn’t matter.

“I didn’t really expect it. I guess it turned out to be a good play. Kind of the difference in the game.”

The other small thing was the two pitches from Rogers to Arcia that preceded the Contreras stolen-base attempt. The second two-strike pitch was borderline and could’ve ended the at-bat. The third two-strike pitch definitely should have ended the at-bat. Plate umpire Pat Hoberg flat-out missed the call. With a bit less count leverage, the Braves put the runner in motion in an effort to stay out of the double play. It worked as Arcia struck out and Contreras easily beat the throw after catcher Austin Wynns had a difficult pitch to handle.

Blame the umpire. But also credit the Braves for their aggressiveness.

Prior to the game, Doval met with Kapler to talk about what happened the previous night when the right-hander thought he had recorded the final out and, in response to the two-run homer to Olson that he’d allowed earlier in the inning, threw his glove in frustration.

Kapler didn’t have to give the young pitcher a lesson. Doval was first to speak and tell the manager that it wouldn’t happen again.

Doval said he was upset because he wanted to throw Olson a slider but didn’t shake off the sign for a fastball. He’s still learning hitters and how to pick between what can be two devastating pitches when properly located. The advice from Kapler and the coaches: Have confidence to throw what you want to throw, but don’t get too heavy in either direction.

“This is true in general for major-league pitchers, but definitely for Camilo, that we want to create a coin flip for the hitter,” Kapler said. “We never want the hitter to feel like, ‘I’ve got a good bead on what’s coming next.’ That doesn’t mean you can’t throw three fastballs in a row or three sliders in a row, but whatever we need to do to create that indecision in the mind of the hitter is where we want to go with his pitch mix.

“Camilo shared this with me: He wants to feel a lot of conviction in whatever pitch he chooses to throw. So we’re working with our catchers and Camilo to make sure he’s the main decision-maker.”

What has Doval learned about himself in his brief time as a major-league reliever?

“I have learned that when you have good moments, you’d better celebrate them,” he said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “Because when the bad ones come, there’s not much to celebrate.”

(Photo of Carlos Rodón: Dale Zanine / USA Today)

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