Giants fail to complete sweep in Texas as rotation inconsistency persists

ARLINGTON, Texas — Keaton Winn’s first major-league pitch in nearly a month was a fiasco.

It veered wildly out of his hand and forced Marcus Semien to recoil in self-preservation. The pitch struck the ear flap of Semien’s helmet and sent him reeling. Concerned San Francisco Giants catcher Patrick Bailey, his own recent concussion front of mind, immediately turned around to check on the Texas Rangers’ leadoff batter.

“I’m just trying to make sure he’s OK,” Bailey said. “Getting hit in the head is serious. I’m just trying to make sure he’s all right and not going to fall over. Obviously, that’s not how you want to start a game.”

Semien shook it off and trotted to first base. He later said he hadn’t looked at a replay, didn’t especially care to, and still wasn’t sure where the pitch got him. The damage that lingered belonged to Winn’s psyche and confidence, as the right-hander pitched with slightly reduced velocity and a significant shortage of command. Winn allowed seven earned runs in 4 1/3 innings, and the Giants couldn’t overcome their early deficit, losing 7-2 at Globe Life Field on Sunday afternoon.

The Giants missed a chance to sweep the series and had to settle for a 3-3 road trip against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Rangers, the two clubs that met in the World Series last season. Considering how the trip began, with consecutive losses in Arizona and a postgame lecture from manager Bob Melvin, the overall result was something the Giants could stomach.

What they cannot stomach is the overall body of work they’re receiving from what has been essentially a three-man rotation consisting of right-handed ace Logan Webb, rookie left-hander Kyle Harrison and converted closer Jordan Hicks — with the latter two on an innings pace that will be unsustainable over the entire season.

Winn capably held down one of those rotation spots in April, throwing three consecutive starts of six innings and one run allowed. But illness, Coors Field and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ potent lineup combined to make the beginning of May a miserable experience. Then a forearm cramp sent Winn to the injured list. When the Giants activated him Sunday, they hoped he could become the tourniquet the back of the rotation has lacked for the better part of six weeks.

Instead, the Rangers gushed runs.

Keaton Winn hands the ball to Bob Melvin in the fifth inning. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

“Definitely going to start diving deep,” said Winn, who got 10 whiffs on his splitter but struggled with too many noncompetitive fastballs and a flat slider. “I’ve been trying to figure things out. I felt when I made pitches, I had success, and I just didn’t make pitches.”

That’s been the running theme for the Giants’ rotation since the beginning of May. In 36 games since May 1, their starters have combined for a 5.15 ERA that ranks third worst in the major leagues, better than only the Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins. It becomes a 5.31 ERA when you take the four games in which the Giants used left-handed reliever Erik Miller as an opener, subtract his numbers and add in their bulk pitcher du jour. The Giants are averaging barely more than 4 2/3 innings per game from a starter or featured bulk reliever since May 1.

The Giants had hoped to fold in Alex Cobb by now after offseason hip surgery, but he’s been thwarted by nerve pain in his shoulder. Cobb threw off a mound over the weekend while a catcher received him in front of the plate, so it was the lightest of sessions. The hope is that he can graduate to a full side session off a mound by the end of the week. Robbie Ray has looked fantastic in the beginning stages of competition while nearing the end of his Tommy John rehab schedule, but there’s no disobeying the steps he needs to take to return shortly after the All-Star break.

And there’s Blake Snell, of course, who is back on the injured list after aggravating his left groin injury, but he might not miss much time beyond the minimum 15 days if the issue is as mild and manageable as scans made it appear. He’s eligible to return June 18.

The injured pitcher whose absence has been low-key significant is right-hander Tristan Beck, who is playing long toss after surgery in March to repair an aneurysm in his upper right arm. There’s little doubt the Giants would have leaned on Beck to shore up the back half of the rotation over the past few weeks.

“I’m just happy he’s throwing a baseball with what he’s gone through,” Melvin said Friday. “He’s on a nice track. No limitations at this point in time. Letting it go. What the timetable is, I’m not sure, but I think we’re all happy he’s throwing a baseball and healthy again.

“We do have a couple spots we’re manipulating right now. At some point, it’d be nice to get him back.”

The Giants are expected to continue to rely on right-hander Spencer Howard, who has pitched competitively through his share of loud contact and lasted 4 2/3 innings in Saturday’s victory. It’s been a nice run for Howard, who faced both his former teams in his three appearances as a Giant — first the Philadelphia Phillies on the last homestand in San Francisco, then the Rangers on Saturday — and also received his World Series ring over the weekend. Howard made just three relief appearances with Texas over two stints in June and July last season; per major-league tradition, one day of service time with a World Series champion is all it takes to receive a prized possession.

The Giants are still able to dream of a second-half rotation headed by Webb, Ray and Snell, with everyone else providing enough depth that the club can throttle innings for Harrison and Hicks. But they have 25 more games to play before the break. And in the shortest of terms, getting Winn back on track was the simplest way for the Giants to bring some stability to their rotation.

Instead, it was instability from the first pitch.

“Definitely rattled me a little bit,” Winn said of his pitch that struck Semien. “Anytime you do something you don’t mean to do, especially hit a guy in the head … it shook me a little bit. It comes down to execution, I guess.”

Semien had vengeance on his mind. He wasted little time taking advantage of Winn’s slow delivery while stealing second base and igniting a three-run rally. Wyatt Langford hunted a first-pitch sinker for a two-out, two-run single. Then Langford stole second base, and when Bailey’s throw short-hopped shortstop Brett Wisely, Adolis García pounced off third base to execute a delayed steal of home.

When Semien batted in the second inning, he ambushed Winn’s first pitch and hit his 11th home run of the season, an aggressive act that Winn acknowledged caught him off-guard.

Winn’s velocity was down a tick, but he said it wasn’t enough to be worrisome. He topped out at 96.2 mph, and his average four-seamer was 93.2 mph. He bore some resemblance to his opposite number, Rangers right-hander Nate Eovaldi, who used to touch 100 but operated nearer to 95 mph Sunday.

“You look at what their guy does, Eovaldi, and he’s made a living being mainly a fastball-split guy,” Bailey said. “I thought (Winn’s) stuff was good; he just didn’t really command the ball. He had a lot of swing-and-miss. He just has to get back to elite strike-throwing. You don’t expect him to be at his best after missing time, but you’ve got to fill up the zone and let the defense work. He’s got some of the best stuff out there. It’s just getting in the zone and getting count leverage.”

Winn’s slider got hit hard early so he threw the pitch only eight times, but he said he probably should have abandoned it sooner. The pitch remains important for him to navigate major-league lineups a second and third time, and Bailey expressed confidence that it’ll come around.

“I am incredibly encouraged with his slider this year,” Bailey said. “Obviously, it wasn’t today, but slider’s arguably been his best pitch before this outing and probably still is. He’s been throwing it harder.”

It’s tantalizing to think of Winn’s stuff playing up with more velocity in shorter bursts, and perhaps the Giants will get to the point where their rotation is whole and they can feed some of their starting depth into the bullpen. Those were the designs before the start of the season. It hasn’t worked out that way so far. But nothing that happens in May or June has to be definitive.

So the Giants will hope resting some of their veterans, including Matt Chapman and his cranky hamstring, will pay dividends when they begin a homestand Monday against the Houston Astros. They will hope Winn’s velocity and execution will improve when he starts again next weekend against the Los Angeles Angels.

And they’ll hope, after throwing essentially back-to-back bullpen games in Texas, Harrison can get their homestand off and running with a competitive start.

A club that aspires to contend can only tolerate so many pitching fiascos.

(Top photo of Patrick Bailey and Keaton Winn: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

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