MILWAUKEE — If the Giants looked listless at the plate Thursday in their double-header against the Brewers, maybe it’s because they landed in Milwaukee at about 1:30 a.m., a little under 12 hours before first pitch.
Once meant to be a travel day from Los Angeles to Chicago turned into a bleary eyed twin bill about 90 minutes up the shores of Lake Michigan, making up their final two games with the Brewers lost to the lockout at the start of the season.
When Cubs starter Drew Smyly throws the first pitch Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Giants will have started three games within 24 hours of each other.
But then again, maybe it’s because the opposing starter in game one was Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee’s ace and last year’s National League Cy Young winner, who is vying with Carlos Rodón for the National League lead in strikeouts.
And the Giants did no favors to their teammate in that race, fanning 14 times in eight innings against Burnes, in a 2-1 loss. “Nothing new,” manager Gabe Kapler said between games. “That’s Corbin Burnes.”
Facing what amounted to Brewers bullpen game 45 minutes later, after scheduled starter Freddy Peralta exited in the third with a shoulder injury, they fared little better: one fewer strikeout, one more hit — but still only two runs.
Not long ago, these two games could have played a crucial role in the National League wild card race. But with both clubs reeling, the Giants entered play 9.5 games behind San Diego and the Brewers 4.5 out of the final spot.
Before Sean Hjelle wowed in five innings of relief in the second game, the happiest moment for the Giants — and anyone watching — had to be reliever Scott Alexander exchanging lineup cards with his brother, Jason, a Brewers pitcher, before the start of the second game.
The brothers grew up in Sonoma County, rooting for the Giants (though Scott claimed he was a bigger fan), where their parents, Rich and Marion, were almost certainly watching on television.
Scott, who had never shared a field with his younger brother by four years, served as an effective opener for Jakob Junis in the first game, and called the experience with his brother — however brief — “a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
“I’m just really happy to be able to share that moment with him,” Alexander said. “That was probably one of my favorite moments I’ve had so far in my career. … I know my parents will be proud and happy.”
The combo of Junis and Alexander held Milwaukee hitless once through the lineup, and Junis tossed six strong innings after taking over in the second, but one blip in the fourth was all the Brewers needed with Burnes on the mound.
Their opener strategy in the second game, however, put them in a deficit their anemic offense wasn’t able to make up.
Lefty Alex Young walked two of the first three batters he faced in the bottom of the first and allowed a single to the other. All three came around to score, while Young failed to make it out of the inning. With the bases loaded and the infield playing in, Evan Longoria wasn’t able to handle a hard-hit ground ball from Hunter Renfroe, which snuck into the outfield and plated their first two runs.
Once Hjelle entered, though, the Brewers’ bats went silent.
Hjelle, the 6-foot-11 right-hander, had struggled to get hitters out in 22 Triple-A starts (4.92 ERA) and in his first three big-league appearances (9.00 ERA). But he was a different pitcher Thursday, hitting 96 mph on the radar gun for the first time as a big leaguer and adding nearly full mile-per-hour in average velocity. A new, sharper slider helped him get out lefties, too, which he did twice against Christian Yelich, even striking him out in their final showdown.
Hjelle completed five innings, striking out six, and the only earned run credited to him scored when Dominic Leone gave up a double that drove home his inherited runner, Luis Urias, whom Hjelle hit as the last batter he faced.
In his last game here, Joc Pederson slugged a late-inning home run that he said was fueled by taunts from the Milwaukee fans. On Thursday, it was Pederson doing the chirping after becoming one of Burnes’ first strikeout victims leading off the second inning. (And hit another late homer, an eighth-inning solo shot to right field in the second game, though it ultimately didn’t factor into the outcome.)
The pitch from Burnes was low and inside, but home plate umpire Manny Gonzalez determined that it crossed the black above Pederson’s knees and rung him up. Pederson took strike three on another borderline pitch in the fourth, and Burnes received the benefit of the doubt against Mike Yastrzemski in the sixth, too.
But with his tantalizing upper 90s cutter and arsenal of other plus complementary offerings, Burnes needed no help from the man in black behind home plate. He generated 26 swinging strikes, which tied the most times the Giants have swung and missed against a single pitcher this season.
The last time?
Against Burnes, in a 4-2 loss April 25, in the first of the three makeup games from the delayed start to the season.
That, supposedly, is one down side of splitting up that original three-game series: double the exposure to one of the National League’s best pitchers.
Burnes ended his outing with 214 strikeouts on the season, eclipsing Rodón (201) for the NL lead.
The Giants’ 14 strikeouts in the first game came one away from matching a season-high.
Between both games, they totaled three runs and seven hits and struck out 27 times.
But the bigger question coming out of Thursday night had less to do with an offensive dryspell than Hjelle’s future the rest of this month. He wasn’t one of their initial September call-ups and was only added to the roster Thursday as the extra player given to teams for a double-header.
However, the Giants have an open spot in their rotation with Alex Wood on the injured list, and Hjelle turned in easily his longest and most effective outing as a major-leaguer.
Contributed by local news sources