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Bullpen woes in Giants' opening loss leave Kapler disappointed

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The Giants were excited to get Buster Posey's bat back in the lineup, but more than anything, they wanted him behind the plate, particularly in the game's most important moments. They hoped he could help guide an evolving pitching staff through the late innings, something last year's catchers had trouble with. 

But sometimes there's nothing the catcher can do. 

Posey had no choice but to watch as a string of veteran relievers came in and failed to show command, an issue that ultimately led to a stunning loss on opening night and so many long innings that Posey might sit Friday night.

The Giants blew a five-run lead in the eighth and lost 8-7 to the Mariners in 10 innings, in large part because their bullpen walked seven batters, including three in the final frame. After a runner was placed on second in the 10th, newcomer Jose Alvarez walked all three Mariners he faced, literally pushing the winning run across the plate. 

Watching young relievers do that would have annoyed manager Gabe Kapler and his coaching staff. Watching three with a combined 18 years of previous big league experience do it left Kapler particularly disappointed. 

"Look, Jarlin Garcia, Jose Alvarez, (Matt) Wisler, these are guys that we are going to count on to come into the game and throw strikes, and the reason you count on them is because they've done it," Kapler said. "All three of them have done it in their careers. That's why you bring veteran guys in to be able to handle those things."

 

The trouble stared with Wisler, a slider-happy righty who signed a one-year contract near the start of the offseason. He didn't retire a batter. Garcia, who allowed just one run last year, walked two of the three he faced, putting Tyler Rogers in an impossible spot. 

Rogers gave up a two-run double and then seemed to get the ground ball he was looking for. With the bases loaded, the Giants up by a run, and one out, Jose Marmolejos hit one right to Brandon Belt. He did what he has done thousands of times over the last decade in workouts and games, turning and firing to Brandon Crawford for what should have been a 3-6-3 double play, perhaps the signature play for the two teammates. 

But the throw was low and wide, which is unlike Belt. Crawford failed to keep it from skipping into the outfield, which is unlike him, too. Two runs scored on a play Belt said he usually makes in his sleep. 

"I'm not really sure what happened," he said. "I feel like I did everything right and just kinda yanked it a little bit. It's a play I feel I make 99 times out of 100."

Alex Dickerson dug the Giants out of that hole with a pinch-hit blast, but the bullpen wasn't done. 

Alvarez never had particularly high walk rates in Philadelphia, and the Giants felt they got a reliable arm when they signed him to a one-year deal in the middle of camp. But only four of the 16 pitches he threw in his Giants debut were strikes. The final three walks gave the Giants nine for the night, seven of which came after Kevin Gausman departed with a a big lead and 6 2/3 innings under his belt. 

"Obviously it's tough, it's tough losing a game like this," Gausman said. "It's unfortunate that it just happens to be the one game that we've played. I think it's a little magnified because of that."

It is just one of 162, but man, it felt so familiar. The names are different, but the Giants continue to be prone to the meltdown. That once again left Kapler in a difficult spot, answering questions he couldn't have expected.

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He had no doubts about pulling Gausman after 90 pitches, noting that he threw 75 in his final spring tuneup and this was the next step. He never considered bringing Jake McGee back for a second inning after his sharp debut in the ninth, not this early in the season. McGee is supposed to be the closer for a rebuilt and solid bullpen. The Giants went with experience in the offseason, but on the first night of the year, the veterans failed them. 

Kapler said the staff pushed three messages on pitchers in camp: Have a good pace, know your game plan, and pound the strike zone. They whiffed on the last one Thursday night. 

 

"You're going to give up some hard contact from time to time, and that's not frustrating, but not being able to throw strikes, that's going to hurt you at the Major League level," Kapler said. "We've got to do a better job."