SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants will head into September with the lead in the National League West, something that seemed impossible to imagine back on opening day. But it was hard for them to feel much joy about that Tuesday night.
For the third straight game, the lineup went down quietly, and this rough performance was extremely poorly timed. Johnny Cueto tried to gut it out after fighting flu-like symptoms for two days, but he didn't last long and didn't get much help. The Giants fell 6-2 to the Brewers, losing for the fourth time in five games.
A few minutes after the Giants watched their 27th out settle in Lorenzo Cain's glove, the Dodgers wrapped up a second straight win over the Braves, getting to half a game out in the NL West. It is the smallest lead the Giants have had since July 6, but that's not their biggest concern at the moment. The general caliber of their play is.
There is no tougher back-to-back task in the NL right now than trying to beat Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, and Giants manager Gabe Kapler was quick with his praise. But he also has watched his team stun good pitching all season long, pile up scoreless innings on the mound, and play consistent defense. None of that was on display Tuesday.
"It hasn't been our best baseball. We have to play better," Kapler said of this recent stretch. "I don't know if there's anything specific that I'd point to, we just haven't played good all-around, and we've gotten it handed to us by some good pitching."
Kapler can mostly forgive that part. Burnes and Woodruff are two of the leading Cy Young candidates in the National League and Milwaukee's bullpen can be just as tough. But the way the Giants went down left a bad taste in his mouth.
Cueto started to feel sick on Sunday and had to be scratched from his scheduled start Monday. He still wasn't feeling fully right a day later, but he went out there and tried to get deep, a necessity during this stretch of 16 games in 16 days.
Instead, Cueto was knocked out by one of the uglier defensive sequences of the season. A pop-up dropped between Alex Dickerson and Kris Bryant in shallow left and the ball was thrown down the right field line once it finally reached the infield. The next pitch was a bouncer to third and Bryant's throw to first was wide. That was it for Cueto, who gave up 10 hits and six earned runs.
"Tonight's defensive effort wasn't strong enough," Kapler said. "I think we all know that. I think Johnny needed us to play really good defense behind him to give him a chance to go deeper into the game, and we weren't able to do that."
The sequence handed the Brewers a sixth run, which was plenty for Woodruff, who struck out eight and lowered his ERA to 2.35. The performance got the Brewers within 3 1/2 games of the Giants in the race for the league's best record, but that's not even close to being on the radar at Oracle Park right now.
The Giants are holding the division lead by a thread, but there were some minor silver linings after the loss. They can't see the Burnes-Woodruff duo again until the postseason, and life should get much easier on the hitters the next couple of days. The Giants will throw Kevin Gausman and Logan Webb, their two best arms, against lefties Brett Anderson and Eric Lauer.
After three days filled with strikeouts and quick innings, it's time for one of the league's best lineups to once again lead the way.
"I would definitely say the last two nights it's been more about the opposing starting pitching and to some degree their bullpen, as well," Kapler said of the offensive woes. "Burnes and Woodruff have really shoved, they've really pitched well. Woodruff's fastball tonight was excellent and had a ton of life. Hitters saw that early and we knew that it was going to be a dogfight. We just weren't able to scratch enough runs across to stay in it."
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