A funny thing has happened during Gabe Kapler's tenure as Giants manager. He hasn't actually had to talk that much about his skills as a manager.
Kapler's introductory press conference was unlike anything we've ever seen around here, more of an interrogation than a celebration. His first spring didn't last long enough for the games to even get close to mattering. The last four months have been dominated by talk of how to handle baseball in a pandemic, and over the last week, Kapler has, rightfully, used his platform primarily to talk about his fight against systemic racism.
It has been a whirlwind, and it has obscured the fact that Kapler actually was fired not too long ago, and that he came to San Francisco carrying questions about his ability to handle a bullpen in particular.
Kapler's philosophy is deeply rooted in analytics, so he'll tell you that four games is way too small of a sample to make any sort of judgment. But in 2020, four games is the equivalent of 11, and after an impressive 3-1 win over the Dodgers on Sunday, you can say this much: Kapler has done a very, very nice job of handling his bullpen thus far, and the Giants are 2-2 because of it.
"I've said it to the guys a number of times: That lineup over there is a pretty impressive group of hitters," said Darin Ruf, the offensive standout of the night. "The work our pitching staff did this series is pretty incredible. They came in when their name was called at any situation and really, really did a great job."
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Those names were being called in a way we haven't quite seen before. The coaching staff has been playing video game simulations of Giants-Dodgers games for months, trying to work out every last matchup, and over four games at Dodger Stadium it became clear that this series had special meaning compared to the rest of the season. Kapler started his postgame press conference by immediately naming his first two starters for the next series. In this one, only one starter was known more than a few hours in advance.
The Giants used those starters out of the bullpen. They used Drew Smyly as a reliever Thursday and then a starter on Sunday. When Tyler Rogers ran into trouble Thursday, Kapler quickly pulled him and waved the white flag on that game, saving every last submarine missile for the rest of the series. Jeff Samardzija, the apparent No. 2 starter, didn't see the field. The Dodgers are a bad matchup for the right-hander, and he'll start Tuesday against the Padres instead.
Kapler treated this like a playoff series, and in the end he came away with a split thanks to some savvy bullpen management. Shaun Anderson gave him a dominant inning. Wandy Peralta had a scoreless frame, and then came Rico Garcia, a nice reclamation project scooped up from the Rockies.
Sam Coonrod became national news this week for his views on Black Lives Matter. But he took the mound in the seventh and cruised.
"Coonrod is resilient. He hasn't had the easiest go the last couple of days and he came into a game tonight in a very tight situation," Kapler said. "Openly, we weren't expecting to use him in a very high-leverage spot tonight and he turned out to be our best option for the group of hitters that he faced, and he really stepped up to the challenge."
Rogers worked around trouble in the eighth, and Trevor Gott, the closest this team has to a closer, struck out Max Muncy to end it.
"We've said these guys will take control of roles," Kapler said. "It doesn't happen in one series, it doesn't happen in two. But if you see enough of it, you learn that these guys are capable of taking down roles and you're open to that possibility."
With Gott's inning in the books, Kapler had received 5 2/3 shutout innings from six relievers, none of whom are particularly established big leaguers. Every button his staff pushed with relievers was the right one on Saturday and Sunday, and that's kind of what Giants fans have grown used to.
Strong bullpen management was a pillar of the previous regime. During his first series with the Giants, it allowed Kapler to fly home with a series split that felt like much more than that.
"We're fighters. We're fighters. I know nobody gives a crap about us, but that's the neat thing," utility man Mauricio Dubon said. "We're just going to surprise everybody. We played good baseball the past two games and we're going to try to continue and do it the whole year."