SAN FRANCISCO — The favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year Award walked up to the plate at 7:15 p.m. Monday night. Dereck Rodriguez had a plan for him.
Two months ago, the Giants pitcher had dreams of vaulting to the top of the race. As good as the right-hander has been, Ronald Acuña Jr. appears poised to edge Rodriguez, Juan Soto and the rest of a star-studded field. When you’re 20 years old and have 25 homers and a .940 OPS for a surprise Atlanta Braves team that should win the National League East, you're going to be tough to beat.
But Rodriguez hasn’t given in, and he wasn’t eager to become part of Acuña’s campaign on Monday. The young outfielder has taken over the conversation in large part by ambushing opponents for leadoff homers, and Rodriguez was well aware of it. Long before he took the mound, he knew what he was going to do with his first pitch.
“I went out there and knew he tries to ambush the first pitch,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the easiest pitch of the game, a first-pitch fastball. I gave him a cutter and it worked out.”
Rodriguez threw a cutter on the outside edge of the plate. Acuña took a big swing and bounced out to third baseman Evan Longoria. In the third, he again grounded out to third. In the fifth, Rodriguez walked him.
The battle between two of the best young players in the National League went to the Giant. The rest of this night belonged to the Braves. They scored on a mistake by Gorkys Hernandez in the seventh and tacked on two runs in the ninth. A 4-1 loss was the ninth straight for the Giants, who haven’t yet had a handshake line in September.
This march to the final out of the season gets more depressing by the day, but at least the Giants have found Rodriguez. In a season full of so much disappointment, the right-hander looks like a foundation of the rotation. It no longer is a small sample size. On Monday, Rodriguez went over the 100-inning mark for the year. His ERA (2.35) ranks fourth among National League starters with 100 innings thrown. The three men in front of him — Jacob deGrom, Aaron Nola and Max Scherzer — will make up the top three on every Cy Young ballot.
“I’m not surprised anymore,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He knows what he’s doing out there. I’ve said it so many times — four pitches, with command, and he goes up and down. And he’s such a good competitor.”
Even with where the Giants are, Rodriguez asked to go out for the seventh. Bochy obliged, but that wasn’t enough to get the Giants over the hump. The offense is too poor right now to beat a pitcher like Sean Newcomb, and it has cost Rodriguez at least three or four wins in the second half. He could be sitting at 10-2 right now, perhaps better, and that certainly would resonate a bit more with voters.
Instead, Rodriguez took an undeserved loss. He’s 6-3, and although few pitchers in the game have been better this summer, it appears there’s nothing he can do to unseat Acuña. If that bothers the rookie, he hasn’t shown it. He talked Monday about how excited he is to have three more starts.
“I’m just trying to go out there and put on a good performance regardless of what anyone else is doing,” he said. “I can’t control what I can’t control. The past couple of months have been pretty crazy [with other rookies]. We’ll see how it is.”