SAN FRANCISCO – Matt Cain provided stability Saturday night. He threw seven shutout innings, all concrete and rebar, and it was exactly what the Giants needed to reinforce themselves after losing 13 of 17 games.
But a solid foundation is no match for a sinkhole.
Sergio Romo got swallowed alive, the Giants couldn’t complete a searing comeback, and a night that could have provided some reassuring answers instead ended with more and more questions after a 7-3, 11-inning loss to the Cincinnati Reds at AT&T Park.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Reds late rally spoils Cain's solid start]
It was equal parts deflation and conflagration, and it left the Giants holding (clinging to?) a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.
The first question: Is Romo, after allowing 15 runs in his last 15 innings, still the closer on this team?
Bochy didn’t say no. He didn’t say yes, either.
“Oh, I don’t know,” the manager said. “I won’t answer it now. It’s something I’m sure we’ll talk about here tomorrow. He’s done such a good job for us. I know everybody has their moments. If we have to tweak it, we’ll tweak it. This is not the time to talk about it.”
Bochy likes to talk to players before he announces any role changes publicly. Romo still has an 81.4 percent save conversion rate this season. But he also has gotten tagged for six home runs, already matching his single-season high.
He worked on making an adjustment after becoming too predictable. He was throwing some good pitches in the ninth. But he issued a leadoff walk to Joey Votto, and then threw a 2-2 slider to Brandon Phillips that caught way too much of the plate.
Romo wanted to throw it low. He threw low-hanging fruit, instead.
“I feel I’ve been getting back in the groove again … and today was obviously a setback,” Romo said. “It’s legitimately one pitch away. It’s making that last pitch, putting them away. That’s what I’m missing right now. Today was a setback but it doesn’t (affect) my confidence. I’m one pitch away.
“It’s understanding the game, understanding myself and what’s happening. The game adjusts to you, you adjust back.”
Next question: Why did Bochy pinch-hit Joaquin Arias, a .176 hitter, for Brandon Crawford after the Giants tied it on Buster Posey’s impressive pinch double in the ninth?
Bochy noted Chapman was especially tough on lefties (1 for 15 with nine strikeouts this season, .107 lifetime), and he had a hunch because he liked Arias’ at-bats against the left-handed flamethrower in Cincinnati and in the spring.
It didn’t work. With the winning run at third base and no outs, the Giants got two weak grounders to short from Hector Sanchez and Arias that forced the runners to hold. Then Adam Duvall struck out. The Giants officially lost the game in the Reds’ five-run 11th inning, but for all practical purposes, their inability to walk it off in the ninth was just as decisive.
Crawford was 1 for 2 off Chapman, by the way, with the hit coming in the 2012 NL Division Series, and he entered the night hitting 338 vs. lefties this season.
“(Chapman), he’s tough on everybody, I know, but for a lefty, he’s throwing 100 mph with that kind of slider,” Bochy said. “Arias doesn’t have a lot of at-bats but watching him face him in spring training, the other at-bat in Cincinnati, I just thought my chances were better with a right-handed bat in there.”
Last question: Can the Giants ever pull out of this?
Cain’s seven shutout innings offered some hope. As we told you on the pregame show, Cain worked with Dave Righetti to make an adjustment in which his hands come set at his chest, not at the belt, from the stretch. Cain has been having the worst problems locating with runners on base, and was looking for a way to create more freedom, as he put it, in his delivery. Righetti noted that Cain kept his hands high when he played catch, so maybe that might be a tweak worth trying. It was a small adjustment that felt like a bigger one for Cain, who has kept his hands at the belt for so long. But it felt good in his side session, he stuck with it, and the Reds were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position against him.
“I’m not saying it’s a make-or-break deal,” Cain said. “Just to mix it up and get a little freer out of the stretch.”
Cain remained stuck on one victory for the season, though. And the trumpets won’t blare quite as loudly for Posey and Pablo Sandoval, who had two masterful trips to the plate against Chapman in the ninth. Hunter Pence hit a leadoff single and Sandoval worked a 10-pitch walk during a plate appearance in which seven pitches were clocked between 100-102 mph and there were four two-strike fouls. Then Posey laid off two sliders before he pulled – yes, pulled – a tying double on a 102 mph fastball.
The rally stopped there. The ground opened up. And the Giants saw more of their NL West lead – everything but the last little bit – slide helplessly away.