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Belt reliable as ever as Giants surge to open season

Bullpen bends but doesn’t break; Slater key off the bench


CLEVELAND — The Giants are beginning their season in a way extremely familiar to those who saw their 107-win 2021 campaign play out.

San Francisco notched its third series win of 2022 through as many tries with a close 4-2 victory over the Guardians on Saturday evening at Progressive Field.

Here’s a look at three factors that played a part in the Giants’ propelling to 6-2 on the season.

First things first
Every good team needs a few veterans who know how to handle anything thrown their way, and Brandon Belt has shown that he’s up to the task.

Belt is now 9-for-24 (.375) with five runs and five RBIs through six games, and he played an outsized role in Saturday’s outcome. After the bottom of the order gave Guardians starter Cal Quantrill, who carried a no-hitter through 4 1/3 innings, trouble in the fifth and turned it over to the top of the lineup, Belt drew an at-bat with the bases loaded against lefty Logan Allen.

The left-on-left threat didn’t mean much in this situation. Allen had reverse splits in 2021 vs. left-handed hitters, and Belt still hit them at a great clip (.832 OPS) last year. It played out in line with that, as the first baseman singled up the middle to score two runs and provide a needed boost.

“I think it was the same approach I have with everybody, which is to make sure I see the ball, swing at strikes and don’t swing at balls,” Belt said. “I mean, literally, I keep it that simple. … Once I get outside of that and try to do too much, that’s when I get in trouble.”

Before Saturday’s game, manager Gabe Kapler praised Belt for being a guy who stays ready when others might make excuses. Belt came out of a short Spring Training ready to attack; he makes sure he does what his body tells him is right, and he’s given the Giants the dividends of that mentality.

“We have all of these mind games that we play — we didn’t get enough preparation, we weren’t prepared and we just feel like that’s going to impact us in the next game,” Kapler said. “Brandon has the confidence to know that he’s ready. He’s done this over and over for his entire life, and that when he steps into the batter’s box, he’s going to show up.”

A test for the bullpen
The Giants had the best bullpen ERA in 2021 by a good margin; in fact, they were the only team under a collective 3.00 ERA at 2.99.

One of the many reasons for that success is the ability to handle moments of big pressure. Two presented themselves on Saturday.

Tasked with an inherited runner and two outs in the sixth inning, Jarlín García quickly built an 0-2 count on Josh Naylor, whom the Giants hoped would be the only batter he’d have to face that inning. However, García quickly lost control of his offspeed pitches, and he walked two batters in a row to load the bases.

Facing pinch-hitter Ernie Clement, he didn’t shy away from throwing his first pitch for a ball before putting a perfectly placed four-seamer on the edge to induce an inning-ending fielder’s choice.

With a two-run lead in the ninth, Kapler turned closing duties over to Jake McGee, who had not pitched since last Saturday. The Giants were hoping to get a high-leverage spot to put him in, and it presented itself.

“It’s pretty nuanced,” Kapler said of McGee’s workload management. “I think too much is too much, and then not enough is not enough. We’re trying to strike that balance and find the sweet spot.”

McGee allowed a leadoff single and walk in his first save opportunity of the season. But experience matters, and he quickly shook off the rust to record three straight outs.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Kapler said. “Obviously, there were some hiccups in there. … But we were able to get through it with a ‘pen that has been very dependable for us.”

In a pinch
Twice this series, Kapler has put right-handed hitter Austin Slater in for lefty slugger Joc Pederson mid-game. Both times, it’s worked well to keep the offense rolling.

The Giants know that Slater can hit left-handed pitching well, with a career .833 OPS against southpaws entering the game. He’s drawn two walks and beat out a potential double-play ball against three left-handers in the series. But his best at-bat came against right-hander Nick Sandlin in the eighth inning, when Slater singled on a 2-2 sinker in on his hands in what turned out to be the game-winning, two-run frame.

“With a lefty, he’s just a dangerous all-around hitter, and with a righty, we just want him to grind and battle,” Kapler said. “Drop a bunt down, sometimes take a pitch, sometimes see several pitches, and like today, he can certainly line a ball into right-center field.”

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