SAN FRANCISCO — When setting a rotation for the second half the of the season, a manager will often slide a rookie between a couple of veteran starters, knowing that the experienced pitchers can help make up for any innings the bullpen might have to soak up in the rookie’s starts.
The Giants brought Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija back this week and they slid Dereck Rodriguez, a 26-year-old, between the two reliable innings-eaters. But Rodriguez is flipping the script.
Cueto’s return on Thursday night was shaky, and the Giants, for all their optimism, don’t quite know which version of Samardzija will show up at AT&T Park on Saturday afternoon. But when this slice of the rotation comes back around next week, they can be pretty comfortable with the young right-hander pitching between two of the highest-paid pitchers in the game.
Rodriguez was dominant into the seventh Friday night, shutting down a Cardinals lineup that whacked Cueto a night earlier. He did not get the decision in a 3-2 win over St. Louis, but he tightened his grip on his rotation spot, lowering his ERA to 3.09 with 6 2/3 strong innings.
The Giants will keep a close watch on Rodriguez as the summer wears on. He is, after all, a converted outfielder who has never thrown more than 143 innings in a season. But he also has the look of a workhorse.
“We’re going to keep an eye on him with his workload,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “But he’s a strong kid and he maintains his stuff late in the ballgame. He can maintain his stuff and command, and he’s got strength and stamina to be one of those guys. When he goes out there you have confidence he’s going to get you late in the game.”
Rodriguez threw 99 pitches and seven innings two starts ago. His last time out, it was 6 1/3 innings on 102 pitches. On Friday night, he went 6 2/3 on 90 pitches before Bochy pulled the plug. He was able to get deep because of a change in gameplan, but not a conscious one.
Rodriguez said he has long been a fly-ball pitcher — “oh yeah, by a long shot,” he said, smiling — but he got 13 outs on the ground Friday, repeatedly feeding an infield that took a blow in the fourth inning. Joe Panik was pulled with a left groin strain and will go on the disabled list Saturday, with Alen Hanson taking over at second and Austin Slater getting most the time in left. Hanson better be warmed up the next time Rodriguez pitches, because he kept the guys behind him busy Friday. Rodriguez was talking about that defense when he paused and looked back at a reporter.
“How many — 13?” he said of the groundball outs. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten more than 10 in my life.”
The Cardinals kept pounding it into the dirt, but they did get to Rodriguez twice. Hanson overran a two-out pop-up to left in the second inning and Rodriguez was saddled with a tough-luck run. He cruised from there, but Bochy saw signs of fatigue in the seventh and had Reyes Moronta warming. Paul DeJong singled with two outs and Kolten Wong pulled a double off the bricks, with DeJong scoring easily when the ball took an odd bounce. That was it for Rodriguez, who yelled into his glove as he walked off the mound. The crowd didn’t seem to notice. Rodriguez got a raucous ovation.
“Yeah, I thought it was a good pitch (to Wong) and he put a good swing on it,” Rodriguez said. “Unfortunately the ball took a bad hop when it hit the wall.”
It might have cost Rodriguez a win, but it didn’t cost the Giants. Andrew McCutchen drove Hunter Pence in a few minutes later and Tony Watson and Will Smith closed it out. The Giants snapped a four-game losing skid.
“Right now we’re not clicking offensively,” Bochy said. “We’re going to have to throw the ball well and find a way to score runs.”