Giants ask their overloaded bullpen for an inning too many in loss to Dodgers

SAN FRANCISCO — Giants right-hander Sean Hjelle entered the season hoping to establish himself in the major leagues and believing he had the stuff to avoid another season of shuttling to and from the Pacific Coast League.

A year ago, Hjelle understood his station in life. He knew his existence would be interstitial, moving back and forth on the Capitol Corridor whenever the Giants needed short-term coverage in the bullpen. So he made the practical choice to stash his stuff somewhere in the middle. He signed a lease on an apartment in Walnut Creek.

Nobody enjoys sitting in traffic for two hours. Nobody looks forward to creeping through Vacaville at 9 mph. It’s especially uncomfortable when you are 6-foot-11 and your seat reclines only so far.

Hjelle’s ambition this year was to crack the Giants roster and stay there, and halfway through the season, he has remained firmly in the driver’s seat — one that need not recline — while establishing himself as one of the Giants’ most versatile and dependable relief pitchers in an overloaded bullpen that might be more accurately called a tourniquet. He entered Saturday night’s home game against the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 2.33 ERA while averaging nearly 4 1/2 outs in 27 appearances.

Hjelle isn’t pitching in the role he once expected. He was a starting pitcher when the Giants drafted him in the second round out of the University of Kentucky in 2018, and over parts of six minor-league seasons, he’s appeared as a starter in 105 of 113 games. But the Giants told him early in the spring that they didn’t envision a place for him in their rotation this season. Not when they had an embarrassment of depth: Logan Webb, Blake Snell, Keaton Winn, Kyle Harrison, Jordan Hicks, plus Alex Cobb racing through his recovery from hip surgery, plus rehabbing left-hander Robbie Ray promising to provide a second-half boost, plus a minor-league system with several starters on the cusp of making a major-league impact.

So Hjelle committed himself to being the best reliever he could be. And the Giants burned up all of that pitching depth in barely two months, leaving them to gut through most of June with fewer than three starting pitchers and asking their bullpen to sop up the rest.

It’s true what they say. You can never have enough pitching.

The Giants are not exactly thriving with less than half a functional rotation, but for now, they are surviving. They’ve had nights when they won behind a bullpen game while taking down a name-brand opposing starter. They were poised to overcome a significant mismatch Saturday, hectoring Dodgers left-hander Tyler Glasnow for nine base runners and five runs and eliminating their archrivals’ paper advantage after three innings.

But the Dodgers came back against bulk pitcher Spencer Howard. The Giants couldn’t score the tiebreaking run after getting their leadoff hitter aboard in the seventh, eighth or ninth. They only pushed across the tying run in the 10th on David Villar’s pinch double, failing to walk off the game with the bases loaded (and the Dodgers employing the emergency two-man outfield) when Patrick Bailey struck out and Matt Chapman popped up to the catcher on the first pitch.

The Giants have asked more from their bullpen than any team in the National League.

They asked for one inning too many Saturday.

Teoscar Hernández runs past Sean Hjelle on his way to score in the 11th. (Ed Szczepanski / USA Today)

The game went to the 11th, and with yet another bullpen game looming Sunday, Giants manager Bob Melvin was compelled to ask Hjelle to take the mound to pitch a second inning. Nine batters and seven runs later, the Dodgers had a 14-7 lead and Hjelle had an ERA that no longer reflects how well he’s pitched this season. It went up from 2.33 to 3.54. Those stains won’t come out with another clean appearance or three.

The game, of course, never should’ve made it to the 11th inning. (In addition to the lack of a clutch hit in the late innings, Austin Slater fouled off two sacrifice attempts before striking out in the ninth.)

Hjelle paid the price for it. He was a 6-foot-11 clothesline hung out to dry.

“Unfortunately we had to do that,” Melvin said. “Sean Hjelle has pitched great this year. I really had one inning with him today and we asked him to do a little bit more. it’s too bad he gave up as many as he did but we couldn’t use another pitcher at that time.”

Melvin used up Hjelle’s designated inning in the 10th, when the right-hander gave up a soft single that scored the inherited runner but otherwise pitched credibly. It probably counted as a victory that Hjelle faced just four batters in the inning — and left leadoff man Shohei Ohtani in the on-deck circle.

But the problem with leaving Ohtani in the on-deck circle to end an inning is that he’s due to lead off the next one.

When Hjelle found himself back on the mound with another inherited runner at second base in the 11th, Melvin made the expected move to walk Ohtani. Then Will Smith crushed a two-run double over the head of center fielder Heliot Ramos. Then Freddie Freeman hit a sinking line drive and left fielder Luis Matos inexplicably didn’t attempt a diving catch. The brakes were off, and by the time the game lurched to a sparking stop, the Dodgers’ seven-run victory ranked as the second largest margin in an extra-inning major-league game since at least 1901, according to researcher Sarah Langs.

“The guys battled hard,” Melvin said. “The game went back and forth a million times. We had an opportunity to win the game in extras. We didn’t come through. There’s so many ways to dissect this game, but we had our opportunities to win.”

The shame of it was that the Giants bullpen already contributed more than enough to win. Ryan Walker, who tied teammate Tyler Rogers for the major-league lead with his 42nd appearance, struck out three in 1 2/3 innings. Closer Camilo Doval provided some of the most compelling theater of his major-league life in the ninth when he struck out Ohtani on three pitches, twice overpowering him with 100 mph cutters at the top of the zone before getting him to swing through a perfectly placed slider.

But the problem with using up so many pitchers in a bullpen game in pursuit of an extra-inning victory is that it leaves you with little sustenance when you have to follow with another bullpen game the following day. In addition to Howard, Randy Rodriguez threw 35 pitches over multiple innings, and his needle will be in the red. In terms of multi-inning options, they’re down to Spencer Bivens, who might provide two innings and perhaps a piece more if he can work efficiently. Melvin kept Tyler Rogers in reserve so he’d be able to pitch Sunday. Struggling right-hander Luke Jackson will be rested.

Chapman spoke brightly of the fight that the Giants showed in a back-and-forth game. But the team burned a lot of pitching fuel and had nothing to show for it.

They can’t afford many more victories achieved this way, so the losses are especially fretful. Whether you’re planning to take on the Dodgers or drive across the Carquinez Strait to Sacramento, it’s never a good idea to leave home on an empty tank.

(Top photo of Sean Hjelle: Ed Szczepanski / USA Today)

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