San Francisco Giants

All aboard for Giants’ bullpen in the ninth inning

San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Santiago Casilla reacts after yielding a three-run home run to the Baltimore Orioles’ Jonathan Schoop on Aug. 14, 2016, in San Francisco. The Orioles won 8-7.
San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Santiago Casilla reacts after yielding a three-run home run to the Baltimore Orioles’ Jonathan Schoop on Aug. 14, 2016, in San Francisco. The Orioles won 8-7. AP

As Giants reliever Derek Law faced hitters in a simulated setting at AT&T Park on Monday afternoon, those gathered around the backstop watching included manager Bruce Bochy, coaches Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner and ace Madison Bumgarner. In the clubhouse, asked how the session went, Law grinned and replied: “Felt great.”

The Giants are expected to activate Law from the disabled list Wednesday. His role is unclear. Arguably the Giants’ best reliever this season, Law landed on the DL because of a strained right elbow Aug. 28. While he was out, the Giants’ bullpen structure went from tenuous to nebulous with the removal last week of Santiago Casilla from the closer’s role.

With fewer than 20 games left, the Giants lack a designated closer in a bullpen that has been a key strength in each of their three recent postseason runs. On Sunday, right-hander Hunter Strickland performed a four-out save against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But asked Monday if Strickland now will handle the closing duties, Bochy said the situation is “all hands on deck.”

“We have a lot of guys that are comfortable pitching late in the game, in tight situations, those stressful innings as you might say where we need a big out,” Bochy said. “We have experience down there and have guys that can pick each other up, so I’m comfortable with a lot of them down there.

You don’t know what inning’s going to be the big inning, where we’ve got to shut them down, and I’ll use who I think is the best guy for that job. That may mean somebody else may close that day.

Bruce Bochy, Giants manager

“They know now I could bring in anybody. Just be comfortable with it. Let’s not worry about roles; let’s just be ready to go and do our job. That’s where we’re at right now.”

Before last week, Casilla in the ninth was the one constant for a bullpen that has been a puzzle this season. Left-hander Jeremy Affeldt retired after last season, and right-hander Sergio Romo went on the disabled list because of a strained elbow April 11. When none of the less-experienced relievers solidified setup roles, Bochy had to mix and match to bridge the gap to the ninth inning.

As a result, Giants relievers often entered to face one or two hitters rather than pitching an entire inning. The Giants entered Monday with the fourth-most appearances by relievers in the National League, but their bullpen had accumulated the second-fewest innings. And those appearances often came in pivotal situations, in close games or with runners on.

According to baseball-reference.com, the Giants lead the majors in appearances in situations termed “high-leverage” and inherited runners by relievers. That made the failures more costly. The Giants lead the majors with 13 losses when taking a lead to the seventh inning and are tied for the most losses when leading going to the eighth (nine) and the ninth (six).

As the closer, Casilla’s slips were of the highest profile, and his seventh blown save finally caused the Giants to make a change. Two years ago, Bochy also switched closers during the season, replacing a struggling Romo. But that move came in June, and Casilla, a veteran with closing experience, was there to take the role.

While a Giant could seize those duties in the next few weeks, right now the ninth inning is much less defined. Bochy’s options include Strickland, Law, Romo, Will Smith and 41-year-old Joe Nathan, who ranks eighth in career saves but is returning from his second Tommy John surgery.

“It’s hard to have to transition late in the year, but we’ve got to find a way to win these games,” general manager Bobby Evans said Monday. “Any given day it can be anybody’s job. When playing this time of year, you’ve got to do everything you can to win, whatever it takes, and it’s a team effort.”

Strickland saved 28 games in the minors and has held major-league opponents to a .203 batting average the past two seasons – the lowest figure among the Giants’ regular relievers. He also has been used in more high-leverage situations this season (32) than any Giant except Casilla, according to baseball-reference.com.

It’s hard to have to transition late in the year, but we’ve got to find a way to win these games. Any given day it can be anybody’s job. When playing this time of year, you’ve got to do everything you can to win, whatever it takes, and it’s a team effort.

Bobby Evans, Giants general manager

Bochy said he “felt comfortable enough to put (Strickland) out there” on Sunday against the Diamondbacks “and he did a nice job.” But he also mentioned Romo’s closing experience and Law’s imminent return and indicated Casilla remained in the late-inning mix.

“You don’t know what inning’s going to be the big inning, where we’ve got to shut them down, and I’ll use who I think is the best guy for that job,” Bochy said. “That may mean somebody else may close that day.”

Law has 46 minor-league saves and converted his one chance for the Giants this season. Before his injury, Law had allowed one run over his last 24 appearances while compiling a 1.94 ERA on the season. When Law returns, Bochy said he would like to get him into at least one low-leverage situation “just to see where he’s at.”

If Law could seize the closer role, it might provide the Giants stability beyond this year. Casilla and Romo – along with fellow bullpen mainstay Javier Lopez – are headed for free agency this winter, while Law is just 26 and having a breakout rookie season.

Asked if Law has closer potential, Bochy said: “I think that’s a possibility with the stuff he has. Same with Strickland, with the stuff he has. The kids throw hard, and they have good secondary pitches – and the mentality. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Pennant race

N.L. West

Team

W

L

GB

Dodgers

81

62

Giants

77

66

4

N.L. Wild card

Team

W

L

GB

Giants

77

66

+1 1/2

Mets

77

68

Cardinals

75

68

 1/2

Marlins

71

73

5

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