Brandon Belt shakes off Clayton Kershaw history to rally Giants in win

Brandon Belt shakes off Clayton Kershaw history to rally Giants in win

SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Belt entered Friday with just four hits in 54 career at-bats against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Twenty-eight of those at-bats have ended with a strikeout, and the Giants first baseman, known above all for his eye at the plate, had just three walks against the best pitcher of the last decade. 

But Belt was not surprised when he walked into Oracle Park on Friday night and saw that he would hit second in the series opener against Kershaw and the Dodgers. He said his confidence has always remained high.

"Yeah, it's been a tough go against him, but what are you going to do when a guy gets lucky 55 times," Belt cracked after the Giants' 2-1 win Friday. "You've got to keep battling."

Belt always has, despite what the stats say. He always has felt like he's close to breaking through against his fellow Texan, and while he didn't have a hit in three chances Friday, he worked Kershaw hard and drew a walk that brought the Giants' first run home in the win. 

Belt saw 19 pitches in three plate appearances against Kershaw, the final one a nine-pitch walk leading off the sixth. He took second on a single and raced home on Kevin Pillar's flare to left, scoring just ahead of Chris Taylor's throw. 

"I snuck that size 14 in there," he said. 

The Giants got two runs in the frame, and that was all they needed on a night when Drew Pomeranz was sharp and the bullpen locked it down. Manager Bruce Bochy knew this would have to be a tight one if the Giants were to win, and he wasn't going to go up there without any of his best. In the past, Belt and Brandon Crawford have gotten plenty of days off against Kershaw. But Belt hit second, and Crawford batted sixth Friday. 

"It's not like there are a lot of guys that have hit Clayton," Bochy said. "With Buster (Posey) out, you want your guys out there."

Belt is one of them, and he was ready for the challenge. This is not the Kershaw of old -- the 95 mph fastball sits 89-90 now -- but Belt still marveled at how the fastball, slider and curveball all looked the same every time they came out of Kershaw's left hand. 

"I still wasn't seeing it well," Belt said. "I went up there and did what I know, which is to have good at-bats."

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The final time up helped the Giant hand Kershaw his first loss of the year. It was the lefty's first loss at Oracle Park since 2016, and Belt said the winning clubhouse needed to remember what this night's intensity felt like. 

"We've got to take that into series with teams that aren't the best team in the league," he said. "If we do that, we'll win a lot more ballgames."

Giants takeaways: What you might've missed in 5-1 loss vs. Astros


Giants takeaways: What you might've missed in 5-1 loss vs. Astros


The Giants knew this was going to be the toughest trip of the year. It lived up to expectations.

With a 5-1 loss the Houston Astros on Wednesday night, the Giants finished with a 3-7 record on the trip, getting one win apiece in Denver, Los Angeles and Houston. The last game was close into the middle innings, but the Astros pulled away with a big frame off of the Giants' bullpen and Gabe Kapler's lineup did nothing against old foe Zack Greinke.

Here are three things to know from the final night of a three-city trip ...

The Big Inning

The Giants have made a habit of falling behind, and on Wednesday it was because of a four-run sixth inning. The staff got away with a half-dozen early walks, but six hits in the bottom of the sixth helped the Astros pull away.

Martin Maldonado had the big one, a three-run homer off rookie Caleb Baragar.

D-Rod's Return

Dereck Rodriguez made his season debut in the third, and it was immediately clear that the velocity uptick that impressed coaches in recent bullpen sessions had translated. Rodriguez maxed out at 95.4 mph with his fastball, which was his best velo since his third month in the big leagues in 2018. He averaged 92.8 mph, which was better than any single-game average from his 2019 season.

The added velocity is crucial to Rodriguez, a right-hander who relies on a varied mix and was getting knocked around last year when he was around 91. The results in his season debut were mixed, though.

Rodriguez gave up three hits and walked two in 2 1/3 innings. He was charged with just one earned run, although he did leave a bit of a mess that Baragar cleaned up in the fifth.

[RELATED: New Giants catchers thriving in this advanced statistic]

Short Debut

Before the game, manager Gabe Kapler said Trevor Cahill had 45 to 50 pitches in him as he made his Giants debut. Cahill was coming off a finger injury that kept him from making the Opening Day roster.

Cahill ended up recording just five outs before his count got too high, but he didn't give up a hit. He walked four but the misses were pretty competitive. All in all, it was enough that Cahill should be in line to start again next week.

New Giants catchers thriving in this advanced defensive statistic

New Giants catchers thriving in this advanced defensive statistic

How do you make up the gap when you still have a large talent deficit most times you take the field? The Giants are trying to do it by exploiting every edge, from platoons to increased shifts to aggressive use of relievers. 

There have been mixed results, but when it comes to the catchers, there's a clear area where they're excelling in finding an edge. 

Tyler Heineman and Chadwick Tromp have had their growing pains as rookies, but both have done a pretty good job at pitch framing, an area of emphasis for new bullpen coach/catching coach Craig Albernaz. 

Per Baseball Savant's framing metrics, Heineman ranks 15th and Tromp is 17th (out of 55 qualified catchers) in strike rate, which looks at how often a catcher converts non-swing pitches into strikes when they're in the "shadow zone," which Savant counts as one ball width inside the zone and one ball width outside. In layman's terms, it's how often catchers are stealing strikes on the edges of the zone with their framing. 

The league average is 49.1 percent. Heineman is at 52.4 percent and Tromp is at 52.1.

"One of (Albernaz's) main points of emphasis is how we can swing counts in our favor for our pitchers, and some of the most important work that they can do is keeping balls that are strikes in the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I think they've done a nice job of that so far and they've responded to Albie's emphasis, and as a staff I think we all believe that the number one job of a catcher is to kind of make a pitcher look great. From that standpoint, the catchers have done a nice job."

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The two newcomers have gone about it in similar ways but with different styles. Heineman has been particularly adept at framing pitches on the left edge of the zone, ranking first overall in that area so far, while Tromp is 10th. Tromp ranks eighth on framing low strikes (Heineman has been good there, too, ranking 12th) while using a unique method. Like several other catchers around the game -- including Houston's Gold Glover Martin Maldonado -- Tromp often gets down on his right knee to receive low pitches. It's a setup that might cost him a wild pitch here or there, but should help him steal strikes. 

"The one-knee setup is something that we feel actually makes him slightly more athletic and enables him to push in both directions and be stable and balanced," Kapler said. "It's definitely a work in progress and a focused area of development for Tromp, but it also enables him to get up underneath the low strike, and I think part of the reason that his receiving numbers have been good so far is that the unconventional setup works well for him."

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