SAN FRANCISCO–The Giants entered the 2017 season with pocket aces on staff, but midway through the month of June, the team looks ready to fold its hand.
Since the end of April, San Francisco has been without its ace of hearts, left-hander Madison Bumgarner, and on Wednesday, the team’s diamond, righty Johnny Cueto, had his opponents calling every bluff in the Giants’ 7-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals.
Cueto lasted just 5 and 2/3 innings on Wednesday, allowing five earned runs for the third time this season.
With Bumgarner still rehabbing from a shoulder injury suffering in an April dirt-biking incident, Cueto has been unable to keep the Giants’ rotation spinning of late, losing four of his last five starts.
On another afternoon in which San Francisco’s bats failed to come alive, its starting pitcher had his head whipped around on three different occasions as third baseman Mike Moustakas, third baseman Jorge Bonifacio and center fielder Lorenzo Cain all hit solo shots off of Cueto to push the Royals to an early advantage.
“I think it’s more a case he was just off,” Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy said. “For him to give up three home runs, that’s not Johnny. The pitch count was up there. He was just off a little bit today.”
The Royals’ victory helped Ned Yost’s club clinch a two-game sweep of the Giants, which marked the fifth consecutive series loss for a franchise that has now lost seven of its last eight games at home.
Cueto entered Wednesday’s contest having allowed just one home run at AT&T Park all season, but Moustakas’ second inning blast followed by back-to-back shots from Bonifacio and Cain in the top of the third had Kansas City cashing in its chips early.
“I left those three pitches hanging and they beat me,” Cueto said.
The three home runs Cueto allowed against the Royals upped his total to 16 round-trippers surrendered in 2017, one more than the 15 he allowed all of last season.
Cueto’s struggles weren’t the only cause for the Giants’ 41st loss of the season, as the team’s offense failed to frustrate Royals’ starter Jason Hammel.
A day after encountering one of the top pitchers in the American League this season, Jason Vargas, San Francisco had few excuses for another lifeless offensive performance. Hammel entered Wednesday’s game with a 2-6 record and a 5.43 earned run average this season, but he looked every bit as sharp as Vargas was a night ago in the Royals’ win.
Vargas lasted 6 and 2/3 innings and allowed just one run, notching his second win in the month of June.
Even though Vargas scattered the eight hits he did allow, the Giants failed to capitalize on their early opportunities against him, leaving runners in scoring position in four of the first five innings of the loss.
“We had plenty of hits today, we just didn’t get the big hit to keep things going and that gets contagious,” Bochy said. “You know, you get one and the guys loosen up a little bit and it starts happening. But this club has been through it, they’ve been through a lot.
After two-out knocks from right fielder Hunter Pence and second baseman Joe Panik in the second inning, left fielder Austin Slater tapped a weak groundball to second base to end the Giants’ first threat.
Slater, who came into Wednesday’s game with seven hits in his last eight at-bats, did make up for his early groundout with a disciplined, opposite field approach in the bottom of the fourth inning to drive in shortstop Brandon Crawford.
The Stanford product received praise from Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy for his ability to hit sit back on breaking balls, and sure enough, he ripped a slider from Hammel over the head of second baseman Whit Merrifield to put the Giants on the board.
Panik was the other bright spot for an otherwise lackluster Giants’ offense on Wednesday, as he returned from a four-game absence to stroke a pair of singles. Panik sprained his thumb last Thursday diving for a groundball against the Milwaukee Brewers, but looked completely healthy in his return to action.
After dropping four of the five games it played during its homestand, San Francisco now enters a pivotal eight-game road trip that should largely determine the direction the club takes for the remainder of the season.
“I still say that we have a winning streak within us,” Cueto said. “We just have to keep our heads up and keep on playing and trying to do our best.”
Though Bochy was reluctant to emphasize the importance of the trip in a pregame conversation with reporters, failing to win at least three of four games against the first-place Colorado Rockies in Denver this weekend would put the Giants in an even greater hole than the 14.0 game deficit in the National League West that they woke up with on Wednesday.