SAN FRANCISCO — Marco Luciano’s first major-league hit was a whistling, 107.1-mph line drive that sideswiped the glove of Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers. In that at-bat in the sixth inning Friday night, Luciano did what he set out to do. He swung at a first-pitch fastball down the middle and he hit it hard.
Luciano’s next at-bat more or less decided the game. Again, he did what he set out to do. He saw four pitches out of the zone. He didn’t swing at three of them. But two of those pitches resulted in generous calls from home-plate umpire Quinn Wolcott. Luciano struck out to strand two runners as both the Giants and Logan Webb got shaded in a 3-2 home loss to the Boston Red Sox.
After the game, Luciano hugged his parents, sister, and his young son, Marco Jr., who traveled from the Dominican Republic and were seeing him play a big-league game for the first time. Standing at his locker, the 21-year-old shortstop smiled as he held up his prize baseball encased in plastic. He said he would give it to his mother, Juana Duarte, for safekeeping. But what else will the slugging prospect take from his second major-league game? What could he have done differently when he struck out in the seventh?
“I’ll still wait for my pitch,” Luciano said through Spanish interpreter Erwin Higueros. “I’ll wait for the right pitch. Something I can do damage with. If it doesn’t come, I’ll let it go.”
That sound you hear is the Giants coaching staff clasping hands to chest with gratitude. That is exactly how you hope a rookie will answer that question. But like most aspects of competing against big-league pitchers, it is easier said than done. The Giants have committed themselves to a roster with a heavy mix of rookie position players. They might further commit themselves if Tuesday’s trade deadline passes without any major additions.
And that means the Giants will experience tense moments like the seventh inning Friday, when they will rely on their rookies to keep their poise.
They sent four consecutive rookies to the plate in a one-run game. Patrick Bailey followed J.D. Davis’ leadoff single with a clean hit. Blake Sabol, pinch hitting for Luis Matos against a right-hander, had an RBI single up the middle taken away when Boston second baseman Justin Turner made what might be the last best acrobatic play of his career: a lunging stop and a sky-hook glove flip to record a forceout at second base.
But then Brett Wisely, who was batting .176, chased two ankle-high pitches while striking out. And Luciano, despite a series of commendable swing decisions, followed suit.
Is it true that rookie hitters don’t get as many borderline pitches? If so, is this a disadvantage that will rear its head often for the Giants in August and September? Especially now that rookies who come up from Triple A (not counting Luciano, who played just six games there) might be exhibiting better zone awareness due to the automatic strike zone?
“There may be something to it,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “I don’t know if I can point to something concrete. But there may be something to it.”
If Friday night’s loss seemed especially frustrating, it’s because it was one of those coin-flip games that can hinge on one matchup. Or one bit of hard contact that doesn’t get rewarded. Wilmer Flores missed a homer by a few feet in the sixth inning. Bailey’s first career plate appearance against Kenley Jansen resulted in a 383-foot out to the track in center field that might have cleared the fence if it had been struck in the sunshine eight innings earlier. And, of course, Turner’s play on Sabol saved the Red Sox at least one run.
(And by the way, what kind of a Bizarro world are we living in when we can say, “Joc Pederson’s home run wasn’t enough as contributions from Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen helped the Red Sox beat the Giants.”)
But there was one important matchup that the Giants didn’t get. LaMonte Wade Jr. wasn’t available to pinch hit for Wisely in the seventh. Wade has been dealing with on-and-off back tightness for the last three weeks, Kapler revealed after the game. And that’s becoming a major concern.
Wade entered July with a luminous .416 on-base percentage. It’s been .308 since then. He’s drawn multiple walks in a game 13 times this season, but just once since the start of the month. He has struck out seven times in his last 11 plate appearances. He has explained that his ability to see pitches and master the zone is tied to his ability to sit in his legs, be balanced and make swing decisions at the last possible moment while still feeling like he can time up a fastball. It’s pretty tough to sit in your legs when your lumbar has other ideas.
It’s a credit to how hot Flores has been that Wade’s lack of production has been a bit less noticeable than it otherwise would be. But this was one of those games when “Late Night LaMonte” could’ve made a reappearance. And it just wasn’t possible.
The Giants did not activate shortstop Brandon Crawford prior to Friday’s game. They plan to wait until Sunday. At that time, the Giants are expected to option one of their rookies. A hint that Luciano will stick around: he was taking groundballs at second base Friday afternoon. Don’t be shocked if Luciano starts taking fly balls in the outfield, too. The Giants need another right-handed hitter who can play the corners, at least. If Luciano’s bat is loud enough to stay, the Giants will find a place to play him.
Logan Webb is having a Matt Cain kind of season. He’s 8-9 with a 3.49 ERA that is only as fleshy as it looks because of rough starts in Toronto and Washington. He was coming off that rat-tat-tat six-run, 1 1/3-inning start at Nationals Park when he took the ball Friday night and he competed well against everyone not named Triston Casas, who might be the hottest hitter in baseball since the All-Star break. Casas tagged him for an RBI double in the second inning and a home run in the fifth.
The frustration might be beginning to show. Webb shook his head in the dugout after he was lifted with one out, a runner at second base and the score tied in the eighth inning. It’s fair to say he liked Kapler’s decision to pull him even less when pinch hitter Rob Refsnyder greeted left-hander Taylor Rogers with an RBI single.
Did Webb, who had thrown 88 pitches, feel he had more in the tank?
Was he frustrated at leaving a runner on base, or at the decision to pull him?
“A little bit of both.”
This is far from a simmering clubhouse controversy. Rogers has been terrific this season and the Red Sox were due to send two lefty hitters, Jarren Duran and Masataka Yoshida, to the plate. It’s not as if Rogers has trouble retiring right-handed pinch hitters. Sure, for generations of managers, the default decision is to stick with your ace because he’s earned a chance to either win or lose the game. But by Webb’s own admission, his changeup, which he relies on to retire lefties, was offline from the get-go. He got just three swinging strikes all night.
So there might be a conversation or two in the near future. But probably not anything to regret. Other than losing a home game with Webb on the mound, which seemingly counts for double given that the rest of the rotation was TBA for this series (Ryan Walker will start as an opener Saturday) and the fact that Webb entered with a terrific 2.02 ERA in nine home starts this season.
If the Giants miss the postseason, and if they want to torture themselves by seeing where they should have flipped a game here or there, they can point to their 10-12 record in Webb’s first 22 starts.
If you’re a firm believer that Giants should trade one of their veteran starting pitchers/bulk-innings guys because promoting a rookie like Tristan Beck or Keaton Winn would represent a potential upgrade in itself, then your argument got stronger and weaker on Friday.
Stronger because Beck threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings on a night when pitchers were challenged and Triple-A Sacramento scored 15 runs in the moonscape of Albuquerque. And weaker because Winn was supposed to start that game before getting scratched.
There will always be a flood of eyeball emojis when a Triple-A player gets scratched from a start in the days leading up to the trade deadline. But Winn was neither being traded nor promoted to replace a traded player. He is dealing with elbow soreness and will travel to San Francisco to be evaluated. The initial sense is that it might not be a serious injury. But it’s at least a temporary hit to the Giants’ depth and their ability to spend some of it in a trade.
It might not be quite as relevant to the trade front, but emerging pitching prospect Carson Whisenhunt was placed on the seven-day injured list for Double-A Richmond as well on Friday. While selling teams were sure to ask for Whisenhunt in potential trades, there probably won’t be many players who would warrant his inclusion in a deal, anyway.
(Top photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)