Gray flirts with perfect game as SF Giants finish tough road trip with a dud

Last year, the Giants didn’t reach six games under .500 at any point after May.

With their fifth straight loss, the Giants have plummeted to that point now, and are showing real signs of cracking.

San Francisco is missing LaMonte Wade Jr. and Jung Hoo Lee and has gotten practically nothing from Blake Snell, Keaton Winn, Tristan Beck, Robbie Ray and Alex Cobb due to injuries or underperformance. The bullpen is stressed as only Logan Webb and Jordan Hicks remain in the rotation as healthy starters. They’re losing on the margins and elsewhere, finishing up their taxing — physically and emotionally — road trip from Chicago to Birmingham to St. Louis 1-5.

Against Sonny Gray and the Cardinals in Busch Stadium, the Giants failed to put a baserunner on for the first six innings. Webb struck out a season-high eight, but took the loss by allowing four runs on nine hits while struggling to keep base-stealers at bay. A late rally from San Francisco (36-42) against the Cardinals bullpen wasn’t enough in a 5-3 loss.

The score didn’t reflect how thoroughly the Giants got outplayed. They tallied two hits to the Cardinals’ 11, allowed four stolen bases and notched just two of the 10 hardest-hit balls.

Webb gave up a run on his first three pitches — a leadoff double to deep center and a slashed single — in a tough first inning. He couldn’t land a knockout punch afterwards, surrendering two more runs with two outs despite getting Cardinals hitters into two-strike counts.

In that first-inning flurry, Alec Burleson stole second without a throw from catcher Patrick Bailey. The outfielder stole three total bases last year and ranks in the 12th percentile in sprint speed, per Baseball Savant. He just took advantage of a soft spot in San Francisco’s armor.

An inning later, catcher Pedro Pagés logged his first career steal, taking off from first before Webb even lifted his leg. Getting into scoring position allowed Pagés to score on a two-out chopper up the middle, giving the Cardinals a 4-0 lead.

Burleson swiped second again after Webb used two of his pickoff attempts. Nolan Gorman later gave St. Louis its fourth steal in the first five innings.

It’s not just a Webb problem. Base stealers on this trip are now 12 of 13 against the Giants. It’s not just a recent problem, either; on the year, the Giants have allowed an MLB-worst 86 steals.

The Giants, meanwhile, were totally stuck in mud. Gray, the former Athletic, needed just 66 pitches to retire the first 18 Giants of the game. They were so helpless against the Cardinals starter, first baseman Trenton Brooks tried to lay down a bunt at one point.

Up in the count 3-1 with two outs in the top of the sixth, Austin Slater watched a perfect low-and-away fastball and then swung through another heater at the top of the zone for Gray’s sixth punchout.

Gray got within seven outs of a perfect game before Patrick Bailey turned on an inside curveball for a foul pole-scraping solo home run. Bailey’s shot represented the Giants’ first hit, base runner and run. Gray had retired the first 20 batters he faced.

On a day the Giants hardly mustered any hard contact against Gray, Bailey’s homer left his bat at 103.9 mph and would’ve cleared the fence in every Major League ballpark.

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Cardinals manager Oli Marmol pulled Gray after 80 pitches, and the Giants drew a pair of walks against his replacement, reliever JoJo Romero. And with the tying run at the plate, Wilmer Flores smoked a ground rule double to make it 4-2. Thairo Estrada scored on a sacrifice fly to bring the Giants within one.

But the threat ended when Brandon Crawford, the Giants legend, made a heads-up play at third base — in his second-ever start at the position — to beat Wilmer Flores to the bag in a foot race.

Then in the bottom of the eighth, Crawford — who’s hitting .196 — delivered an insurance run with a two-out double. Closer Ryan Helsley had no issue shutting the door for his MLB-leading 26th save.

Bailey’s home run saved the Giants from being on the losing side of baseball history. But it didn’t prevent an undignified end to their road trip.

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