The San Francisco Giants decided that Kyle Harrison was ready to pitch in the big leagues this year — but perhaps not quite ready to pitch with their season on the line.
Harrison was lined up to take the mound Tuesday at Arizona in what might be the Giants’ most important game that remains on their schedule. Instead, the prized, 22-year-old left-hander’s next start will be for Triple-A Sacramento.
Prior to Friday night’s game at Coors Field, the Giants optioned Harrison and activated right-hander Ross Stripling from the 15-day injured list. Stripling, who hasn’t appeared in a game since Aug. 16 because of mild back stiffness and who complained that he’s been languishing on the “phantom IL” over the past week, is expected to be available in a bulk innings role as the Giants seek to navigate four games in a three-day span in Colorado.
Harrison, widely viewed as the Giants’ highest-ceiling pitching prospect since Madison Bumgarner, went 1-1 with a 5.18 ERA in five starts. His scintillating home debut Aug. 28 — he took a shutout into the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds while recording 11 strikeouts — provided one of the most memorable moments of the season.
But the three starts that followed were mixed at best while his command and velocity began to trend in the wrong direction. Harrison allowed four home runs in a Sept. 2 loss at San Diego, he gave up four runs (three earned) in five innings to the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 8, and he needed 82 pitches to complete four innings against the Cleveland Guardians last Wednesday.
Harrison’s fastball generated close to a 40 percent whiff rate over his first three starts. But over his last two starts, the swing-and-miss rate was nearer to 20 percent. In the first inning Wednesday, Harrison didn’t appear to have much life on his heater as Cleveland’s No. 2 batter José Ramírez swatted a two-run home run on a 91.8 mph fastball at the top of the strike zone. It was the seventh home run Harrison has allowed — the most by a Giants pitcher in franchise history in their first five starts.
Harrison chalked up the reduced velocity to mechanics and not fatigue or injury. He lowered his arm slot and was able to reach back for 95 mph by his fourth and final inning.
“I started to find my release as the game went on,” Harrison said. “I just had to lower my slot to get back where I was.”
Harrison also began to incorporate his changeup more often in his last two starts. He had shelved the pitch in his major-league debut Aug. 22 at Philadelphia but gained more confidence while throwing it in side sessions. He worked with coaches to throw the changeup more like a slider, focusing more on supination than pronation, which allowed the pitch to catch more seam-shifted movement.
But mechanics and pitch design are only half the battle. Harrison also learned something about mound mentality in his first big-league stint. After his early exit against Cleveland, Harrison sat in the dugout and had an extended conversation with veteran right-hander Alex Cobb.
“If you go out there a little flat, (hitters) smell blood and they’ll jump on you,” Harrison said after Wednesday’s game. “So you put your foot down and be tough out there. That’s what he told me. You’ll have days when you don’t have your stuff and that’s when you have to compete and figure out a way to get guys out. He’s got a lot of experience and really good pitches and mechanics. But it’s his mentality that stands out.
“Today was a tough day. I got my butt kicked. It’s on to the next one.”
Even though Sacramento’s season ends Sept. 24, the 15-day minimum optional assignment remains in force. So unless Harrison replaces a player who goes on the IL, he couldn’t return until Sept. 30 at the earliest.
Stripling, who aired his grievances to KNBR and the Bay Area News Group while explaining that he has been healthy for some time, would appear poised to pitch meaningful innings for a team locked in an extremely tight race for the last National League wild-card position. Stripling also told reporters earlier this week that he would not exercise his right to opt out of a contract that would pay him $12.5 million in 2024.
The Giants had listed Logan Webb, Keaton Winn, Cobb, and Sean Manaea as their starting pitchers in their four-game series at Coors Field, but those plans were jumbled by Thursday’s weather-related postponement. Webb is starting Friday and Manaea is still listed as Sunday’s starter. Giants manager Gabe Kapler told reporters in Colorado that Winn would start Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader. But the Giants are TBA for the second game.
Because the Giants have an off day on Monday, they still can slot Webb into the second game of their critical two-game series at Arizona. But their choices for Tuesday’s series opener at Chase Field will depend upon how they get through the doubleheader.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that the two games at Arizona will be the most critical of the 16 that remain on their schedule. The Giants lead the season series 6-5 against Arizona and must win at least one game to clinch a potential tiebreaker. The Giants already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Cincinnati Reds and are almost certain to hold it in the event of a tie with the Miami Marlins, with whom they split six regular-season games, by virtue of the Giants’ superior intradivisional record. Clinching the tiebreaker against the Diamondbacks would ensure that the Giants also prevail in any three-team or four-team tiebreaker scenarios.
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The Giants entered Friday with a 75-71 record and led the Reds and Diamondbacks (76-72) by percentage points for the third and final NL wild card. The Marlins (75-72) were a half-game back.
The Giants also activated outfielder Michael Conforto on Friday and started him at designated hitter — his first appearance since he strained his hamstring on Aug. 23. The Giants optioned rookie infielder Casey Schmitt to Sacramento, signaling their intent to go with struggling veterans Brandon Crawford and Paul DeJong at shortstop the rest of the way.
The rookies have provided plenty of bright moments this season and the Giants will continue to rely on their contributions. Catcher Patrick Bailey might catch every game the rest of the way, Luis Matos has become a productive hitter against left-handed pitching, Ryan Walker remains a critical part of the bullpen and Blake Sabol contributed to two extra-innings victories this past weekend with his bat and his base stealing.
But with their season on the line, the Giants cannot exercise patience with young players who are struggling. Harrison’s debut is behind him, but he hasn’t arrived yet.
(Top photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)