SAN FRANCISCO -- Before Saturday night, Sergio Romo had only pitched twice since his back-to-back blown saves against Colorado on June 13 and 14. But he had saved wins with a scoreless ninth inning in each of those outings and said he’d felt he was "getting back in the groove again" after his slips against the Rockies.
Then came another setback Saturday. Summoned to protect a 1-0 lead in the ninth against the Reds, Romo walked Joey Votto start the ninth and then surrendered a go-ahead home run to Brandon Phillips on a two-strike slider. The Giants tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, but ultimately lost 7-3 in 11 innings, falling to 4-14 since June 9 despite getting Matt Cain’s best outing in a month.
Romo has 22 saves, fifth in the league, and the fact he has just two since June 8 is partly a product of the Giants’ slide since that date not providing him many chances. But Romo’s struggles haven’t been isolated to that one Colorado series. In his last 12 games, covering 11 innings, Romo has allowed 13 earned runs. He has given up six homers on the season, equaling the most he’d ever given up in a full season before this year (2010).
The right-hander has blown three of his last five save opportunities, giving him four on the year. His ERA sits at 5.17. While the leadoff walk to Votto on Saturday was costly, manager Bruce Bochy pointed out that the slider Romo left over the plate to Phillips was more indicative of his struggles.
"When he has his moments, it’s what hurt him is occasionally he has hung one up there, and they haven’t been missing it," Bochy said.
Bochy was then asked whether it might be time to consider giving Romo a reprieve from the ninth inning.
"I don’t know, I’m not going to answer that now," Bochy said. "But that’s something I’m sure we’ll talk about here tomorrow.
"He’s done such a good job for us. Everybody has their moments, and if we have to do some tweaking, we’ll do it. But now’s not the time to talk about it, after the game."
Romo after the game said he didn’t feel he hung the two-strike slider to Phillips, who had swung and missed at two sliders to fall behind 0-2 and fouled off two more before hitting the sixth pitch of the at-bat into the left-field bleachers.
"It was just too good of a pitch to hit," Romo said. "Everybody in this league’s dangerous with the bat. Give them a chance like that, they’re going to hurt you.
"For me now, it’s all about making that pitch, getting pitches down where I need them to be. I’m working on that."
It’s one area where Romo had felt he was making strides since the Rockies meltdown. He acknowledged that Saturday night was a "setback."
"I don’t feel I pitched poorly," he said. "I mean, it’s legitimately one pitch away, making that one pitch, being able to put them away. That’s kind of what I’m missing right now.
"Today was a little setback, but it doesn’t deter my confidence. I’m still just one pitch away. It’s very promising knowing that I’m that close from, I feel, being that productive contributor again."
Romo did retire the next three batters in order after Phillips’ homer. Then again, two of the outs were fly balls to the warning track in left field, at least one of which might have traveled out of a more hitter-friendly park. More concerning still, both those outs were by right-handed hitters, and both came on sliders.
Bochy made it clear he always talks to the players first before making any kind of change in personnel roles, so there was no change coming late Saturday night. But it seems clear Romo was not at his sharpest, and hasn’t been for a while now. Four times he went to his signature slider against Phillips with two strikes. The results: ball, foul, foul, homer.
"If you’re going to get beat, you’re going to get beat with your best pitch," Romo said. "I got beat today."
* That was only part of one of the most difficult defeats for the Giants to swallow during their 4-14 skid. In the bottom of the ninth, they rallied to tie the game against Aroldis Chapman, with Buster Posey lacing a 101 mph fastball into the left-field corner for the game-tying double. But with runners on second and third with nobody out, they couldn’t get the hit or fly ball needed to end it.
Hunter Pence had led off the inning with a single, and Pablo Sandoval then worked a 10-pitch walk off Chapman, one of three walks for Sandoval in the game.
"It shows you they’re fighting," Bochy said. "They’re not quitting. That’s tough when you give up the lead in the ninth, but they came right back."
After Posey’s pinch-hit double, though, the Giants didn’t hit a ball out of the infield off Chapman. Hector Sanchez and pinch hitter Joaquin Arias grounded out and Adam Duvall struck out to strand Sandoval, the potential winning run, 90 feet away.
"We just needed anything there to finish it off and couldn’t get it done," Bochy said.
Bochy was asked about sending Arias up to pinch hit for Brandon Crawford, who had singled earlier in the game and is 1-for-2 lifetime against Chapman. Bochy said Arias had put together decent at-bats previously against Chapman in Cincinnati and spring training, and cited Chapman being extremely tough on lefties: 1-for-15 this season, nine strikeouts.
"I just thought my chances were better with a right-handed batter there," Bochy said.
* The loss also wasted a promising outing from Cain, who threw seven scoreless innings, the most he’s had in a start since Sept. 26, 2012. Cain had allowed 17 earned runs in 17 1/3 innings over his last three starts, and came in with a 7.03 ERA in June.
"Great concentration, stayed away from mistakes," Bochy said. "I think he made a nice adjustment with his off-speed pitches. He kept down well and spotted his fastball well to both sides, had a good game plan and executed it."
Cain credited Sanchez with calling a game that kept the Reds’ hitters "off-balance," and pitching coaches Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner with helping him make a between-starts adjustment to his hand placement out of the stretch. Cain typically comes set in the stretch with his hands at his belt, but Saturday night his hands were about letter-high on his jersey.
Much of Cain’s trouble this season has come from not being able to pitch out of jams. He did so Saturday, holding the Reds hitless with runners in scoring position. He put runners on first and second with one out in the third inning and with two outs in the fourth and escaped both times.
"I’m not saying that’s going to be a make-or-break deal," Cain said of his hand position. "We just tried to mix something up and maybe just get a little more freedom with the stretch. I was able to make good pitches and get out of some situations, even getting into a few of them in the first few innings."
Cain will still go into July with only one win on the season. But there were encouraging signs Saturday, when he hit 94 mph on his 90th pitch in the seventh inning, had breaking pitches moving sharply and handcuffed a potent Reds lineup for seven innings.
* The Giants’ current slide is so acute, even Jean Machi isn’t immune. Machi had a 0.29 ERA before allowing two runs in the Giants’ 3-1 loss on Thursday. In this game, he was called in with the bases loaded and one out in the 11th in a 2-2 game. Machi struck out Ramon Santiago for the second out, but then allowed three consecutive hits starting with a two-run single by Zack Cozart, as the Reds made it a 7-2 game.
Javier Lopez had started the 11th and allowed a leadoff double to Votto. It’s relative, but Lopez hasn’t been quite as lights-out against lefties this season as in years past. They’re still just 8-for-38 against him this season, but the eight hits include four doubles and one home run.
* Cain overshadowed him, but Reds right-hander Alfredo Simon, who came in tied for the N.L. lead with 10 wins, was pretty good, too. The Giants managed a lone run against Simon when Crawford singled with one out in the fifth, Duvall doubled to left and Joe Panik hit a comebacker that glanced off Simon’s glove, allowing Crawford to score.
Reds shortstop Zack Cozart came on to field that ball and throw Panik out at first. It was one of 11 assists on the night for Cozart. That’s the most by a Reds player since Chris Sabo on April 7, 1988 -- and the most by a Cincinnati shortstop since Dave Concepcion, back on May 8, 1982.
* The Reds, meanwhile, have some pretty live arms in the bullpen aside from Chapman. Jonathan Broxton pitched the 10th inning, throwing in the mid-90s. Then in the 11th, the Reds brought in a big right-hander with eight days of MLB service time named Jumbo Diaz. He threw his first pitch at 98 mph, then hit 99 a couple batters later.
* Sandoval’s three-walk game was his first since April 18, 2011 and just the fifth of his career. He saw 19 pitches combined in the last two, working the 10-pitch walk against Chapman in the ninth and then drawing a nine-pitch walk against Diaz.
* Brandon Hicks entered the game in the 10th inning and made his major-league debut in left field. In fact, it was the first inning Hicks has played in the outfield as a professional.
* Some good news for the Giants: Brandon Belt made a rehab appearance at designated hitter for Triple-A Fresno and went 3-for-4 with two doubles and the game-winning RBI.
* Some bad news for the Giants: Their N.L. West lead, which was 9 ½ games on June 9, is down to one. The Dodgers made it so by crushing the Cardinals on Saturday, 9-1. But Bochy said the Giants aren’t paying attention to standings.
"You can’t change what’s happened," he said. "What we’ve got to change is what happens from this point on. You’re going to have really, really tough times in this game, which we are. Tonight, that would’ve been a nice one, and it ended up being a tough one to take. But you’ve got to be resilient."
Cain struck a similar tone.
"It’s a long season, it’s going to happen," he said. "I think that’s going to show what kind of team we have. And we know the guys we have in here are able to do that. Got to have a short-term memory. We have to turn around and play tomorrow."
That they do, as the Giants will try to salvage a game in this series and avoid a four-game sweep. They’ll send Tim Hudson (7-4, 2.62) to the mound, while the Reds counter with right-hander Homer Bailey (7-4, 4.80). First pitch at 1:05 p.m.