The Giants were down to their last strike. They’d used eight pitchers to get through nine innings, a strategy that fizzled late.
Then, trailing by one with Mike Yastrzemski on second, with two outs in the ninth inning, Blake Sabol smoked a walk-off home run to center field.
Sabol, the Rule 5 Draft pick, screamed and slammed his bat down in celebration.
“I mean, that was probably one of the best moments of my life, for sure,” Sabol said postgame.
Sabol’s two-run homer, San Francisco’s first walk-off home run of 2023, extended the Giants’ winning streak to four. The Giants (10-13), after blowing a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning, came back to beat the Cardinals 5-4.
“It’s a very challenging situation for a young hitter,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “You just don’t see it end that way very often. It can’t come off the right way when you say surprised, because you have a lot of faith and Blake Sabol’s talent and ability, but it was a really unexpected outcome. Lot of excitement for Blake. Never seen a happier individual than Blake Sabol…One of the cooler moments I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here.”
The moment was particularly shocking given Sabol’s career trajectory. He was part of a four-man competition for playing time entering spring training and had never caught at the Major League level before this year.
He went 1-for-15 to start his MLB career and said he’s worked with the team’s mental health and breathing guru Harvey Martin to avoid dwelling on his struggles.
Yet there he was, crushing a game-winner off a reigning All-Star closer and managing two games’ worth of pitchers in a night.
“I think there was always that confidence of knowing, like, I belong,” Sabol said. “There was never a sense of ‘I don’t think I belong here.’ I’m kind of learning how I’m hard on myself, but not being too hard on myself where it’s going to deter me going forward in the future. Not bringing that baggage into the next at-bat. Really this last home stand has really settled me down, relaxed me for sure.”
In a bullpen game centered around limiting perennial MVP candidates — and Giant Killers — Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, the Giants’ short men went longer and their long men went shorter.
Sean Manaea and Jakob Junis, two pitchers capable of a starter’s workload, got four and three outs, respectively. John Brebbia and Taylor Rogers, key leverage relievers, each retired four Cardinals, too. Tyler Rogers, with a perfect two innings, faced more Cardinals than any other Giant.
The all-hands strategy worked through seven innings, until Goldschmidt’s two-RBI single put STL ahead in the eighth. Sabol made all that irrelevant.
Tuesday was Manaea’s scheduled turn in the rotation, but the Cardinals — led by right-handed sluggers Goldschmidt and Arenado — are particularly lethal against left-handed pitchers like him. Hence the modified plan to avoid some of the more extreme platoon splits.
The plot, as it unfolded: let Brebbia open the game and get through the dangerous heart of St. Louis’ righty-heavy, order. Then let Manaea take down the bottom half of the order, which features lefties Alec Burleson and Brendan Donovan, plus two switch-hitters. From there, Manaea would pass the ball off to Jakob Junis, perhaps in a perfect world after retiring left-handed leadoff man Lars Nootbaar.
Brebbia, after warming up to the self-deprecating “The Opener” by Kid Quill, did his job, striking out two and recording five outs. Manaea, though, allowed a solo home run to the switch-hitting Tommy Edman.
Some fans in Oracle Park murmured when Gabe Kapler pulled Manaea — who signed a two-year, $25 million deal this winter — after he faced five batters. But the process tracks: keep Manaea away from Goldschmidt and Arenado and play the matchups otherwise.
Junis took down the heavy lifting, including retiring Arenado and striking out Willson Contreras. But Kapler curiously subbed him out after four batters, apparently not trusting him to face Alec Burleson, Dylan Carlson, Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman without a matchup advantage.
Regardless of outcome, the Giants’ usage of Manaea and Junis is noteworthy. Manaea has only pitched deeper than 3.2 innings once in five appearances this year. SF asked Junis to get three outs when he hadn’t pitched in seven days.
Taylor Rogers relieved the well-rested Junis and retired four of the five Cardinals he squared off with.
That combination — Brebbia, Manaea, Junis, and Rogers — took the Giants through five innings. By then, San Francisco had built a 2-1 lead.
SF’s first run came in the second, when Thairo Estrada stole on a steal attempt. Willson Contreras’ throw skipped into center field, giving Estrada third. Then a bobble in the outfield inspired him to aggressively head for home, where an offline throw made him comfortably safe.
Estrada is on pace for at least the Giants’ first 20-20 season since Hunter Pence. After Tuesday, Estrada is hitting .314 with four homers and six steals.
He and Austin Slater are the only players on the active roster capable of causing havoc on the base paths.
Two innings later, Mike Yastrzemski skied a solo home run over the right field arcade — but not quite into McCovey Cove. A fan in the standing room made a nice grab on what was nearly the Giants’ 100th Splash Hit.
San Francisco’s bullpen made those two runs hold strong through seven innings.
The submariner Rogers, who took the ball from his brother, UFO slider-ed his way to a six-up, six-down two innings. He put down both Goldschmidt and Arenado.
When Rogers hit the showers, the Giants were exactly where they’re supposed to be in any game: with two innings left, a lead and Scott Alexander and Camilo Doval available. It didn’t look conventional, but SF’s all-hands approach worked.
Until it didn’t. The matchups weren’t always going to line up perfectly. Alexander, a lefty specialist, allowed two singles and a double — two of which came from righty pinch-hitters. That scored the tying run and put Doval in a precarious spot, with one out, two in scoring position in the eight and Goldschmidt due up.
With first base open, SF elected not to walk Goldschmidt. Doval’s second pitch lined off the 2022 NL MVP’s bat, corralled off Brandon Crawford’s glove and bounced into left field for a two-RBI single.
Then Cardinals setup man Giovany Gallegos put up a zero in the bottom half. Ryan Helsley, the elite closer, served up an RBI double to Yastrzemski, cutting STL’s lead to one.
Yastrzemski, the game-tying runner, was about to get stranded at second. Sabol was down to a 1-2 count against Helsley.
But Sabol got a third slider in a row and sent it 428 feet to dead center. His fourth of the year left his bat at 108.2 mph for the unlikeliest walkoff.
In 103 career plate appearances with a 1-2 count, Helsley had only allowed three home runs. Opposing batters struck out 63 of those times and had a .388 OPS.
And Sabol, though he does have power, had struck out in 43.8% of his plate appearances entering Tuesday — second worst among all hitters with at least 40 plate appearances this year. He hadn’t hit a walkoff homer since high school.
Kapler noticed a more disciplined approach in Sabol, though. He wasn’t trying to swing for the fences, like he admitted after a high-leverage strikeout earlier in the season. He noticed that Cardinals pitchers all night were throwing him off-speed pitches, so he sat on a Helsley slider.
And once he connected on one, he knew right away.
“When I hit a ball good, and I click one, there’s not a ballpark that can hold me,” Sabol said. “I knew I got all of that one. As soon as I heard the sound off the bat, felt it, I didn’t even look. I don’t even know where the ball went. I kind of bat-flipped, started yelling and screaming, and blacked out from that moment on. Jumping up and down with my teammates, that was a lot of fun.”