Giants bounce in a lake, then get again to .500 with comeback win in Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — Some Giants started their Tuesday morning with an excursion: a drive into the woods, some time for a swim in the woods, and then a dip in the cool waters of Lake Minnetonka. Tyler Rogers took a deep breath of pine-scented air. John Brebbia has been in the sun long enough to turn pink. Sean Manaea and Logan Webb tried to outdo each other with cannonball jumps from the dock.
“Yes, I know,” said Alex Cobb. “I was depressed that I couldn’t walk.”
Cobb couldn’t jump into any of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes on Tuesday. He had to assist in a different kind of dunk: a baptism and rebirth for a team that weathered a rough April but responded by playing well enough long enough to allow for a fresh start. Cobb delivered a strong seven innings, the red-hot Michael Conforto turned the tally with a two-run home run in the seventh, and Camilo Doval delivered another dominant ninth inning as the Giants beat the Twins 4-3 to take their record to 24: 24 Evened Prepare for a chance to win this three-game streak at Target Field.
The Giants have won seven of eight games and hit the .500 mark, and while it’s not accurate to call it a complete fresh start (the Dodgers are 31-19 after all), there’s something about the prospect of climbing rather than digging invigorating.
“What we did in April without a full roster and with some really difficult travel… we knew we were going to get healthy and start a run,” Cobb said. “In order to reach your goal, the most important thing is to limit the damage. We did a good job in April to fight and not let the runners get too long. And now we’re playing the ball we expected when we left camp. We’ve had some great moments with guys who weren’t with us when we broke camp. Just good energy to run the bases hard. So I think this is more the type of baseball that we want to play. We are excited about what is to come.”
The Giants gained momentum by addressing several deficiencies that dragged them down. Some of the repairs are easy to spot. Conforto was still hitting .168 on May 9, halting rallies with strikeouts and leaving runners on base — a reasonably predictable start for a hitter who missed all of 2022 while rehabilitating from shoulder surgery. His double helped set up the Giants’ two-run rally in the sixth round as they forced major league ERA leader Sonny Gray to pitch more than 100 before recording an inning out. Patrick Bailey and Bryce Johnson hit bases-loaded walks against the Twins’ struggling bullpen. Then Conforto’s home run in game seven was his sixth in 12 games. He hits .333 with 14 RBIs over that stretch.
“I was able to gain an advantage and I’m not late for a fastball,” said Conforto. “(Gray) was pretty good, but we put together good bats.”
Cobb said he understands how difficult it is for Conforto to get back up to game pace after a missed season in the lonely world of rehab drills. He had to do it after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015.
“The game is so fast and so crisp,” said Cobb. “Being out all the time, not having a team to help him with rehab and staying fit, then coming into spring training and not missing a shot – now he’s a feared hitter in the box. It seems like everyone in the lineup has good shots, but when they hit the ball, the ball goes away. I mean, the ball went on today. I don’t think it would stand a chance at the altitude. But he flipped it back and shot it up in the air.”
The Giants adjusted their highest strikeout rate in the major leagues in April (27.5 percent) to be a little closer to the middle of the field (22.7 percent) in May, partly through a personnel change (David Villar), but partly also by demanding better performance from others (Conforto, Blake Sabol)—rather than by compromising their aggressiveness in the zone.
The Giants’ other obvious improvement came from the bullpen, which showed signs of stabilizing even before the relievers posted a 1.22 ERA in their last seven games. Scott Alexander’s turbosink gets the results the Giants have come to expect. In the eighth inning, he registered three groundballs. Brebbia has put his rocky beginning behind him and his four-seam fastball is posting a career-best whiff rate of 37.5 percent, which ranks in the 90th percentile among major league pitchers. Taylor Rogers may need two clean months before he can see his ERA on the scoreboard, and he’s not quite back in the starting role ahead of Doval, who everyone was envisioning – Giants manager Gabe Kapler picked Alexander over him by eighth Place to throw Tuesday – but he’s trending in the right direction.
And if the Giants can get the kind of effective long-term relief they got from Manaea and Tristan Beck on Monday, they should be able to play a lot more games through to the end than they did in April.
But the Giants are unlikely to come back from a three-run deficit to win a game like Tuesday’s without also making a few less obvious improvements.
Too many games they fell behind in April continued to fall out of reach due to no plays being made on the field, leading to starters like Cobb throwing extra shots, leading to struggling substitutes getting into the game sooner Games had to kick in when they otherwise would, which became a problem and a fatal loop. But the Giants’ infield defense, which looked solid early in the season, has steadily improved. And the full-back, which was a nighttime disaster last season, wasn’t a problem at all.
The Giants started Tuesday in fifth place in the major leagues with nine outs above average, including plus-1 in the outfield. Last year they finished third-worst with minus 33 OAA, including minus 25 in the outfield.
Bailey is an improvement behind the plate. Casey Schmitt was a revelation with a Statcast-shining arm no matter where the Giants placed him in the infield. And JD Davis continues to play third base.
That’s the other factor at play in the Giants’ record saving streak: Most things that went well in April continue to go well. LaMonte Wade Jr. keeps getting back to base from the starting position. Thairo Estrada, who doubled before Conforto’s home run in the seventh round, continues to hit. And since cars are now constantly pouring in at Doval’s drive-through window, he no longer falsifies the orders.
Doval’s save Tuesday night was his tenth straight conversion, a career best. He saved 10 of the Giants’ 13 wins in May, leading the saves among NL substitutes.
What impresses Kapler most about Doval’s run? That he finds a way to salvage games when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
“And on a day like today, it’s going to be a shorter inning,” Kapler said after watching Doval Slider slide past Byron Buxton and show off a 101.7-mph cutter while hitting three batters. “When he’s active, he’s almost unbeatable. That’s no secret.”
Whether or not the Giants were in their game, they understand the value of a mental reset. Human performance coach Harvey Martin added field trips to his breath and mindfulness sessions with players. They began last season when Cobb and Jakob Junis took him for a little walk through the woods during a series in Colorado. Giants players have found quiet places to go forest bathing outside of Detroit and Cleveland. You strolled through the saguaros in Arizona. The last time they played a series at Dodger Stadium, they explored nature of a different kind. They drove down to Venice Beach.
“We’re in cities all the time, hotel rooms, artificial lights, sharp lines everywhere,” Cobb said. “It’s good to go out and be a part of nature.”
Martin, who played baseball at Minnesota State, knew exactly where to organize Tuesday morning’s outing. He knew someone with a house on Lake Minnetonka. A month ago there was still a layer of ice in places. But on an 80 degree day, the 50 degree water was perfect for a refreshing dip.
Doval didn’t have to jump into Lake Minnetonka to experience restful bliss. He got that boost last week when his family visited him in San Francisco for the first time. He joked that his two-year-old son, Liam, already rides horses when he’s not pitching baseball.
Is he already throwing a 101.7 mph cutter?
“Not yet, but eventually he will,” Doval said through Spanish interpreter Erwin Higueros. “If you’re careful, he throws with the same mechanics as me.”
(Photo of Michael Conforto hitting a home run in the seventh inning: David Berding/Getty Images)