Blake Snell returns and youth takes over at shortstop as Giants win a walkoff stunner

SAN FRANCISCO — Blake Snell had a snap decision to make in the third inning Tuesday night.

He’d gotten a double-play grounder that wiped the bases clean. Then he induced another ground ball from Toronto’s Bo Bichette that skirted the third-base side of the mound. It was close enough for Snell to attempt a lunging stop. At least, he could have deflected it with his glove.

His impulse was to try. Snell started to reach for the ball. Then he pulled back his glove and let it go.

So much of the conversation and consternation around Snell has been about discretion and how much to exercise. It’s been about prioritizing his health and confidence over an immediate need in the Giants’ decimated rotation. It’s been about slowing down the process to get last year’s National League Cy Young winner back to dominant form versus speeding it up to get him back in any useful capacity. It’s been about the obligations and expectations that accompany a pitcher who was given a two-year, $62 million contract. And it’s been about the potentially competing notion that this is another platform season for Snell because, in a few months, he will have the option to crumple up that contract and throw it away.

Snell exercised maximum discretion. He took additional time in the minor leagues. He dominated in his last rehab start for Triple-A Sacramento.

And upon his return to a major-league mound in the Giants’ 4-3 victory Tuesday night, he finally resembled the pitcher that club officials envisioned when they signed him barely two weeks prior to Opening Day. Snell’s fastball surpassed 97 mph and he held the Toronto Blue Jays to one hit while completing five innings for the first time in seven starts as a Giant.

“He had the proper amount of rehab games and just felt very comfortable with where he was after his last outing,” Giants manager Bob Melvin said. “The stuff was good. It was completely different.”

The optics might have been better if Snell had tried to rush back a week or three earlier and attempted to rescue a rotation in peril. But sometimes, against every impulse, the most level-headed decision is not to try. Sometimes the best chance at recording an out is to let the grounder skip past.

In that third-inning moment, Snell put faith in his shortstop and then watched as Tyler Fitzgerald made the play. The Giants exhibited the same trust earlier in the day. They designated two-time Gold Glove Award-winning shortstop Nick Ahmed for assignment, turning the position over to a potential rookie platoon of Fitzgerald and Brett Wisely.

The decision to take Ahmed off the roster, combined with Sunday’s trade of veteran outfielder Austin Slater to Cincinnati, marked a clear delineation for a team that has competed better in recent weeks yet continues to search for its identity while competing for an NL wild card. The subtraction of Slater, their longest-tenured player, created a sense of roster permanence for young outfielder Luis Matos. And letting go of Ahmed, who contributed next to nothing with the bat but provided steady defense behind a groundball staff, signaled confidence in Wisely to hold down the bulk of time at a critical position.

Wisely had been playing mostly second base while Thairo Estrada was on the injured list with left wrist inflammation. Wisely said that while he tried to focus on what he could control, he indulged stray thoughts about how the Giants would create roster room when Estrada and first baseman Wilmer Flores returned from 10 days of resting and rehabbing a collection of nagging injuries.

When the team added back both players on Tuesday, it wasn’t at Wisely’s expense.

“For guys who’ve been up and down the shuttle between here in Sacramento, this is an opportunity for them to feel like they don’t have to look over their shoulder,” Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said. “They can continue a lot of the positives that we’ve seen from them so far.”

Fitzgerald and Wisely provided a few more of those positives with the Giants down to their final out Tuesday night.

The Giants needed a rally after Ryan Walker gave up a three-run home run to Ernie Clement — the right-hander’s first earned runs allowed since June 1 — in the seventh inning. The home run erased a chance for Snell, who had received a supportive home run from Heliot Ramos and departed with a 1-0 lead, to record his first winning decision as a Giant.

Fitzgerald wasn’t having his best game. He made an error in the fourth inning and was upset at himself for striking out in his first two at-bats against Blue Jays left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. So Fitzgerald changed his approach, geared up for a fastball and hit a solo home run off Kikuchi in the eighth to make it a one-run game.

Fitzgerald got another chance to make an impact in the ninth after Patrick Bailey poked a one-out single down the third base line against Blue Jays right-hander Trevor Richards. Pinch hitter Mike Yastrzemski flied out, and with LaMonte Wade Jr. unavailable off the bench because of knee soreness, Fitzgerald drew the right-on-right matchup. He quickly fell behind 1-2 before getting the benefit of a borderline, two-strike call on a low changeup and then drawing a seven-pitch walk.

“Very close,” Fitzgerald said. “I just had to trust myself. I was lucky to get a walk there.”

His walk pushed Bailey into scoring position, and Wisely took an emergency hack at a two-strike changeup well off the plate. His grounder up the middle was a pinball that somehow found its way off a glove and into the outfield grass as Bailey scored the tying run.

Fitzgerald advanced to third on Wisely’s hit. And he stayed ready to pounce when Estrada quickly fell behind in the count.

“Please be a dirt ball, please be a dirt ball,” Fitzgerald said. “With two strikes on Thairo, if he threw anything in the dirt, I was going to try.”

Richards bounced his 3-2 changeup, it got past catcher Danny Jansen, and Fitzgerald scored without a play. He added style points with a mostly unnecessary slide, slapping the plate with his palm as the Giants stormed onto the field.

It was the Giants’ eighth walkoff win in 26 home victories this season. Five of their last 10 home victories have come in their final at-bat.

Both Wisely and Fitzgerald lamented that it took Ahmed losing his place on the team to widen their opportunities. They both extolled Ahmed’s mentorship. Fitzgerald said after more than one tough game, Ahmed invited him to his hotel room to talk through what happened and how to deal with disappointment.

“He was so good at taking us young guys under his wing and teaching us some of the under-the-radar things you don’t really see,” Wisely said. “He’s a great human being all the way around. It sucks to see him go. We were pretty close. It’s the nature of the business.”

The nature of the business is to never stop looking for ways to improve. But Zaidi tempered expectations that the Giants will be active prior to a July 30 trade deadline that probably will be light on difference makers.

“When I look at our team, we have pretty solid players at pretty much every spot in the field,” Zaidi said. “We have a rotation that’s getting healthier, we have a bullpen that’s done a nice job. So nothing jumps out as a spot where we need an emergency plug-in.

“When you’re in it, there’s always an expectation and a pressure to do something to change the mix. But we’ve got to be careful that whatever we do is a meaningful upgrade for us.”

Given the draft picks they punted to sign Snell and Matt Chapman, a payroll that takes them past the first luxury tax threshold, and a baseball operations group that might face a reckoning if the Giants fail to make the postseason, this is an organization that is too pot-committed to consider selling regardless of what happens over the next three weeks.

But there might not be much worth buying, either. Especially when compared to the internal options that the Giants planned to bring online in the second half.

Fans are sure to be disappointed if Zaidi resists the impulse to try — even if it turns out to be the most rational course.

Robbie Ray threw 59 pitches in a three-inning rehab start Tuesday for Low-A San Jose, and if all goes to plan, he could make his Giants debut during the series at Dodger Stadium July 22-25. Alex Cobb was scheduled to make a rehab appearance at San Jose on Wednesday and remains a possibility in August and September. Among the slew of NL wild card contenders, the Giants might be the best-positioned team to make the most meaningful roster improvements. And they could accomplish those improvements without making a single trade.

“We’re still three games under 500,” Zaidi said. “We’ve got to find a way to get better. So turning to some of these internal options, young players that we think can continue to inject this team with energy and help us, I think it’s a fair statement to say that giving them a (sizable) opportunity in this last few weeks before the deadline will help inform what we do there.”

The Giants will feel reassured if Snell can follow up Tuesday’s start by going deeper in his next outing against the hot-hitting Minnesota Twins.

“I’ve still got a lot to learn with who I’m going to be this year,” Snell said. “Every year is a new canvas. I think I’m a lot better. I think I understand myself. I can repeat deliveries. I like the way I’m talking to myself. … Just looking forward to my next one. Probably three or four more starts to really put it all together and start competing (and throwing) really good outings. I’m happy with this one. I know it can get better.”

But even in the best-case scenario, Snell is not the kind of pitcher who will put a team on his back when he pitches. He has never thrown a complete game in his career. Some ace pitchers can will a substandard team to a victory. Snell is not that kind of pitcher. He relies on others to succeed in their roles around him, which means that his impact is minimized on a dysfunctional team.

The Giants might not have a solid identity yet, or even a winning record. But they’re appearing more and more like a functional team, and not a moment too soon.

When the playoff races begin to heat up, valor often becomes the better part of discretion.

(Photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

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