SAN FRANCISCO — Alex Cobb took the mound Monday night with a hip full of cortisone and a 10-year itch.
He is grinding to the end of what has been a scrapbook season. He became a 35-year-old first-time All-Star. He nearly pitched the game of his life three starts ago, coming within an out of throwing a no-hitter. He tossed a shutout in April, something he last accomplished a lifetime ago. Another life is what it seems like, anyway, when you are a married father chasing around two daughters with blonde pigtails and you stop to consider your 24-year-old self. He is older and wiser now, but not in the wily veteran sense. He doesn’t have to get by on thumbtacks and scuff marks and the kind of guile that so many pitchers employed to hang on after they’d lost their fastball. Thanks to modern training methods and a perfectionist’s streak, he still has that heater. He’s throwing 95 mph sinkers, and when he needs to reach back for a little more, it’s there.
Viewed for most of his career as a perfectly fine mid-rotation pitcher so long as his body held together, Cobb has meant quite a bit more to the San Francisco Giants. He is not their ace — Logan Webb leads the major leagues in innings and only ranks behind the New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole in quality starts — but it’s Cobb’s day when the Giants have been most likely to extend momentum or stop a skid. They are 18-9 in his starts this season. They are 56-61 when anyone else throws the first pitch.
Cobb has a 1.95 ERA in 12 starts at the Giants’ waterfront ballpark. It’s the best home ERA among all major-league starters.
Maybe this hasn’t been a scrapbook season for the Giants. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that, on a Monday night against the Cleveland Guardians when they stood 1 1/2 games out of a National League wild-card spot and every remaining contest promises to be tense and compelling and pivotal, the Giants drew their third smallest crowd of the season. The announced paid attendance of 20,705 was their lowest since May 8, and there was a good deal of absenteeism in the actual head count. It was a weeknight. There isn’t a huge Cleveland expat community in San Francisco. The kids are back in school and Niners highlights are still playing on a loop. The Giants will be an afterthought if they stumble through this week. To some, they already are.
But the next three weeks mean everything to Cobb, who has meant everything to the Giants. He couldn’t see through his no-hitter. But seeing through a season is more important, especially when it’s been 10 years since you pitched for a postseason team. The playoffs didn’t happen for the rest of Cobb’s tenure in Tampa Bay after 2013. During his stint in Baltimore, the Orioles finished 49 games out one year, 61 another. When he signed with the Los Angeles Angels in 2021, he had a front-row seat for Shohei Ohtani’s MVP season. But not even “Tungsten Arm” O’Doyle could have turned that club into a playoff team.
The Giants gave back so much of their advantage over the past two months. But they are still playing meaningful baseball. The third and final wild card is a four-wide race and the Giants are still rubbing fenders.
“You’d think that these opportunities are easy to come by … now that the postseason has expanded,” Cobb said. “But they’re still very difficult to come by. It’s something you don’t take for granted.”
So there was no talking Cobb onto the injured list when the hip pain he has battled for several months turned into an impingement. He topped it up with an injection and the Giants bumped his start back a day to give the cortisone a chance to work.
Two pitches into the first inning, Cobb understood: it wasn’t working. He delivered to the plate, felt a shooting pain and couldn’t conceal a grimace. He grabbed at his hip after some pitches, limped after others. He collapsed into a squat after his eighth pitch, when Giants manager Gabe Kapler and head athletic trainer Dave Groeschner marched out of the dugout to check on him. Cobb couldn’t tell them he was OK. Merely that he was OK enough.
“I just assured them that I’m fine, that this little break is helping,” Cobb said. “I just needed to settle down and so they just stalled a little bit. The trust is there on both sides. They know I’m going to be honest with them and not overextend myself.”
The Giants had to extend themselves to win and keep pace. Cobb made it through five innings and departed with the lead before the Guardians tied it in the seventh and scored their automatic runner in the 10th. But Blake Sabol singled home the Giants’ inherited runner in the bottom of the 10th, then he stole his way into scoring position against Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase. And the hour was late enough for LaMonte Wade Jr., who turned around a 101-mph fastball for a single to center that sent his teammates spilling onto the field and clinched the Giants’ 5-4 victory.
You might have come across this persistent narrative in the social media echo chamber: The Giants are a boring team and their games haven’t been entertaining. Well, nothing pushes back against that narrative quite like a walk-off win. The Giants have six of them this season. Four of them ended with home runs (Sabol, Mike Yastrzemski, J.D. Davis, Patrick Bailey). The Giants were down to their last at-bat on April 25 when Sabol erased a two-run deficit with a three-run shot to stun the St. Louis Cardinals. They were down to their last at-bat on Aug. 13 when Bailey erased a one-run deficit with a two-run shot to stun the Texas Rangers. Either of those events might rank as the most dramatic and compelling home game in any number of seasons. Instead, both of them happened this season. Kyle Harrison’s electric, 11-strikeout home debut was one for posterity, too.
Sure, there’s plenty to stick in the suggestion box. It’s asking a lot from your fans if their preferred aesthetics don’t involve bullpen games or a haze around probable starters or a position player group in which nobody (except perhaps Wilmer Flores, who continues to hit everything and everyone hard) is immune to being lifted for a pinch hitter. If the latter is an assault on your senses, then surely you threw something at the TV when Yastrzemski, who led off Monday’s game with a home run and smoked a double in his third at-bat, was out of the game when his spot came up against a left-hander in the seventh inning. But when you can get Flores a clear shot at a left-hander, it’s hard to argue aesthetics. When Flores whistles a single, it’s hard to argue with the result, too.
Here’s the point: No matter how you grade out your experience as a consumer of Giants games this season, no matter how much you felt worn down by following the major leagues’ worst offense in July and August, and no matter how unwatchable they’ve been at their worst, you’re being a crank if you haven’t found them entertaining at their best. Now that Yastrzemski is sparking them again and Mitch Haniger is finally flashing his power and Michael Conforto is about to rejoin the roster from the injured list, perhaps these next 18 games will be their most entertaining of the season. They certainly have the potential to be the most dramatic.
“When we’re going well, it’s really fun to watch,” Cobb said. “Anybody who’s paid attention to this team knows we’ve been streaky. But when it’s going good, we get the late hits. We get the defense. We had it all tonight. I mean, I had just two strikeouts and every ground-ball play was made. That has to be fun to watch. It was for me.”
Thairo Estrada speared line drives at second base and continues to play the best defense of his life. Flores made a diving stop at third base in the ninth and picked reliever Luke Jackson’s throw in the dirt while applying a tag in the 10th. Each pitch was a nail-chewing affair as Tyler Rogers, Camilo Doval and Jackson stranded 10 Cleveland base runners over the final four innings. Sabol ratcheted up the tension with a pair of passed balls with Doval on the mound but blocked several pitches for Jackson in the 10th and then sparked the Giants against an All-Star closer. And Late Night LaMonte collected his second career walk-off hit.
Maybe like don’t hit it to Thairo idk pic.twitter.com/8wPyb7PRmU
— SFGiants (@SFGiants) September 12, 2023
The Giants remained 1 1/2 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for the third wild-card position. They pulled even with the Miami Marlins, who lost. They gained a half-game on the idle Cincinnati Reds. It might have taken a series of speeches and clubhouse meetings to recapture their sense of urgency. When you are reminded all season to discount the importance of results and focus on the process, it can make the losses and the empty box scores easier to accept. As former GM Brian Sabean once said during the tail end of a disappointing season, “It’s not that they’ve forgotten how to win. It’s that they’ve forgotten how much they hate to lose.” Perhaps this collection of players needed to be reminded that results are all that matter now. And that there can be no tolerance for losing.
Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves. Perhaps they’ll win enough games to convince everyone else.
“It’s something everybody should be excited about,” Wade said. “We’re clicking at the right time. So let’s keep it going.”
Where the Giants’ 2023 rookie class might fit for the 2024 season
(Top photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)