San Francisco Giants

Crawford, Heston lead Giants to a half-game out of first place

San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (35) and right fielder Nori Aoki celebrate after the Giants beat the Milwaukee Brewers in a baseball game in San Francisco, Monday, July 27, 2015.
San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (35) and right fielder Nori Aoki celebrate after the Giants beat the Milwaukee Brewers in a baseball game in San Francisco, Monday, July 27, 2015. AP

SAN FRANCISCO -- Late during the Giants’ 4-2 win over Milwaukee on Monday night, news broke that the Rockies had traded shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays. It was a somewhat sudden move featuring a player who for years has been the offensive class of the N.L. West at shortstop.

Even before the trade, though, Tulowitzki this season had been entertaining company for that distinction.

Tulo’s exit from the division came on the same night that Brandon Crawford slugged his 15th home run of the season for the Giants, moving him one ahead of Buster Posey for the team lead, and drove in his 60th and 61st RBIs. The player who infamously hasn’t cracked the .250 mark in a major-league season is now batting .270, and he leads all major-league shortstops in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage (.481), with his .817 OPS one one-thousandth of a point behind that of Tulowitzki.

Monday night, Crawford ambushed a 3-0 fastball from Brewers starter Kyle Lohse and hit it out to the deepest part of AT&T Park in right-center field, giving the Giants a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning. Crawford also walked and scored on a Gregor Blanco double in the seventh, and that was more than enough support for Chris Heston, who won for the 11th time in his rookie season and finished July with a 1.52 ERA in five starts.

It was the third time this season Crawford has put a 3-0 pitch in play, and he’s 3-for-3 with two homers -- the other off Washington’s Jordan Zimmermann -- and a double. In his entire big-league career before this season, Crawford had only put a 3-0 pitch in play once, in 2011, and he flew out.

"Maybe that’s when I got the red light put on, every time after that," Crawford said with a grin. "This year I’ve gotten it a little more often."

He got it Monday night and made a quick assessment of the situation. With Hunter Pence on first and two outs, Crawford said, he was less concerned about taking a pitch to run up Lohse’s pitch count and more focused on trying to drive a ball into a gap to give Pence a chance to score. With a tough out in Nori Aoki on deck, Crawford figured, Lohse would not want to walk him and likely would try to steal a strike with a fastball.

Besides, Crawford said, he had gotten the green light 3-0 in a recent game and taken the pitch for a strike. Later in the at-bat, he popped out.

"It was a good time to let it loose a little bit," Crawford said.

The result was a drive to where the AT&T Park wall juts out to 421 feet, where the ball cleared the top of the fence and bounded several rows up in the stands and Crawford -- who was running hard out of the box, having hit a few balls to that area that did not go out -- was able to slow into a trot.

"He hit it where the big boys hit ’em," manager Bruce Bochy said. "You gotta get all of it to get it to leave there. I wasn’t sure if he got enough of it but he’s strong. He’s a guy that can surprise you with his power."

And his power numbers. Crawford, whose previous season-high in home runs was 10 last year, has left fellow infielders Matt Duffy (9) and Joe Panik (7) behind and is going after bigger game. He’s one of three Giants with double-digit homers, ahead of Posey (14) and Brandon Belt (10).

"I wasn’t going into the season thinking I was going to lead the team in homers, but that’s what’s happened," Crawford said. "I’m sure Buster will catch me sometime soon. But sure, I’m surprised."

Crawford was asked about hitting a home run to what’s sometimes known as "Bonds territory" and said, with a grin, "I’ve heard that before." He said he had "about 50 more feet to go" to reach the marker on the brick wall commemorating Barry Bonds’ 756 homers, but that when it comes to distance -- ESPN, for the record, estimated his shot Monday at 424 feet -- it’s all relative.

"Home runs always feel good," Crawford said, "no matter how far they go."

* Heston said he didn’t have great command of his breaking ball or changeup and pitched with runners on base in five of his first six innings. But the end result was what’s become a familiar game for the right-hander: seven innings, five hits, two runs, three walks, four strikeouts, 95 pitches and a win.

"Heston, the whole story I thought was his job," Bochy said. "Got us deep in the game, he pitched great, and the guys played very, very well behind him -- big double plays."

Inducing three more double plays on Monday, Heston finished July with 13 in five starts and is tied for the majors’ lead with 22 GIDP. The Giants had this stat after the game: In San Francisco history, only three Giants rookies have posted a better ERA than Heston’s 3.14 mark over their first 20 starts with the team -- and none since Bill Laskey in 1982.

"We get a lot of action usually on the field, and that’s fun to play behind," Crawford said. "He gets a lot of double plays, which are always good, and he attacks hitters. He keeps us on our toes. He’s been outstanding for us this year."

Heston is 5-0 with a 2.11 ERA in his last seven starts and is keeping pace with Madison Bumgarner -- and then some. For the season, Bumgarner is 11-5 with a 3.16 ERA. Heston is 11-5 with a 3.14.

* Bochy wanted to stay away from both George Kontos and closer Santiago Casilla in this game. So with a two-run lead, he brought Hunter Strickland in for the eighth and Sergio Romo in for the save chance in the ninth. Strickland retired the side in order with two strikeouts, and Romo pitched around a leadoff error -- later changed to a hit -- and a two-out double to nail down the Giants’ 12th win in 13 games.

"That’s what’s nice about this bullpen, they do give you some versatility to where you can give a guy a break and you’re comfortable with Romo closing the game, Strickland late in the ballgame," Bochy said. "These guys want to be out there in a close game."

Romo got some help in the ninth after Carlos Gomez reached on a squibber that took a weird spin away from Belt’s glove. Gomez tried to steal second, and after he was ruled safe, a replay showed Posey’s throw and Joe Panik’s tag had beaten Gomez to the bag. Both Gomez and Brewers manager Craig Counsell were ejected arguing the overturn.

"Buster made a great throw there," Bochy said. "Didn’t think he had a chance."

Strickland is also having quite a month: In 11 games, the right-hander has thrown 8 2/3 innings, allowed seven hits and no runs, walked two and struck out 13. Bochy pointed out that even through Strickland had a good fastball Monday night -- he struck out Jonathan Lucroy to end the eighth on a 99 mph pitch -- he also mixed in several breaking balls to keep the Brewers’ hitters from sitting on the heat.

* Nori Aoki went hitless in three at-bats in his return from a month on the DL and looked like he was still shaking off some rust. Aoki only played in four rehab games and went 3-for-13 at the plate, so he’s likely still getting his timing back -- one reason Bochy slotted Aoki eighth in the order Monday instead of bringing him back in the leadoff spot.

"That’s why I kind of kept things in the order that we’ve been going with, to kind of find out where he’s at," Bochy said. "He’s going to be fine. He’s healthy. I expect this guy to get his timing soon. It’s a simple, short swing and he’ll get it going here."

* Matt Duffy: Three more hits out of the No. 3 spot. He’s 8-for-16 on the homestand and raised his average to .307, best among N.L. rookies.

* The Dodgers were off Monday, so the Giants picked up a half-game and are now a half-game out of first place. They’re also 11 games over .500 for the first time this season. It’s Matt Cain (2-1, 4.09) opposing Brewers right-hander Wily Peralta (1-5, 4.00) in game two of the series on Tuesday. First pitch at 7:15 p.m.