Frustration abounds for Giants despite Mason Black’s encouraging debut

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PHILADELPHIA — Mason Black set a pre-dawn wakeup call for Sunday morning.

His girlfriend, Bridget Casey, had entered the Broad Street Run — a 10-mile straight shot that started at 7:30 a.m., cut through Center City, passed underneath the gaze of the William Penn statue atop City Hall, skirted Passyunk Square, continued past Citizens Bank Park and ended at Navy Yard on the banks of the Delaware River.

“I’m just happy she finished 10 miles,” Black said. “I can’t do that.”

Black’s distance specialization is more like 60 feet, 6 inches. From the time the right-hander began to emerge as a pro draft prospect at Lehigh University, where Bridget was on the soccer team, they dreamed about what it would be like to make a major-league debut. It almost certainly would involve hastily made travel plans and a whirlwind of emotions. After two impressive minor-league seasons in the Giants organization, plus six highly efficient starts for Triple-A Sacramento over the past few weeks, Black, a third-round pick in 2021, realized his goal. The Giants told the Scranton, Pa., native to prepare to start Monday afternoon’s series finale, which happened to come against the team of his boyhood and in the ballpark where he grew up attending games.

As Black stood on the crowded sidewalk Sunday morning, scanning for Bridget amid the signs and ribbons and the blur of bibs and elbows, he had to appreciate the happy irony. I’m about to make my major-league debut. But instead of her traveling to cheer for me, I get to travel to cheer for her.

Casey blazed the course in one hour, 14 minutes, 47 seconds. A day later, Black started just as fast against the Phillies. His first pitch to Kyle Schwarber resulted in a harmless tapper back to the mound. He struck out J.T. Realmuto swinging. He struck out Bryce Harper looking. As he turned on a heel and walked back to the visiting dugout at the end of the first inning, his 200-plus cheering section from Lackawanna County could be heard from one end of the ballpark to the other.

But distance running requires a certain level of buildup and training. It’s the same for a starting pitcher who must maintain their stuff and stamina against major-league hitters who stand ready to feast on any fatigued mistake.

And Black was only conditioned to make it so far down the course. He retired just one of six hitters he faced in a four-run fifth inning, Harper tagged him for a three-run home run, and the reeling Giants lost 6-1 while getting swept out of South Philly.

Everything was running in short supply in the visiting clubhouse. Stamina from a starting pitcher who had been on a conservative pitch limit in six Triple-A starts. Available innings from a blasted bullpen. And patience for a team that is 1-6 on a road trip to Boston and Philadelphia that will continue with three games against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

The clubhouse remained closed to the media past the 10-minute cooling off period as Giants manager Bob Melvin addressed his team.

“We’ve got to clean it up. We’ve got to play better,” Melvin said. “We left home and we were what, one game under .500? I thought that might be a good spot for us, given that we haven’t played very well. And now we’re playing terribly. So we have to pick it up.”

What message did the players believe the club needed to hear?

“That it’s still early but it’s time to start with a little more urgency,” first baseman LaMonte Wade, Jr. said. “Everybody is working hard, everybody wants to compete. We just need to translate it to the game. It’s a hard game. We’re in a rut but it can turn around just like that. It can start tomorrow.”

This is a different season with a different manager and new personnel, but it’s hard not to hear the postgame comments or watch the Giants in recent weeks — they are a season-worst six games under .500, their tentpole of a rotation had a bad turn that included two rough outings from ace Logan Webb, and their meager offense has averaged just 2.45 runs over their past 11 contests while exceeding three runs just once — and not be reminded of the malaise that consumed them in the second half last season.

The new additions haven’t made a positive impact yet. Black was starting in the spot where Blake Snell, who is on the injured list with a groin injury, is being paid $31 million to pitch. Designated hitter Jorge Soler hasn’t come through in a big RBI spot all season and missed his second consecutive game because of a sore shoulder. And third baseman Matt Chapman was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts against Phillies ace Zack Wheeler to finish a series in which he also committed three errors.

“I feel embarrassed and I’m disappointed in myself,” said Chapman, whose on-base percentage is down to .257. “I want to get this thing right.”

By doing what, exactly? Chapman’s postgame candor did not extend to specifics. The group just has to find ways to win, he said, even if those ways aren’t necessarily pretty.

“That’s a really good team over there, obviously, but we didn’t give them much of a fight for four games,” Chapman said of the Phillies, who have won 10 consecutive at home.

It doesn’t help that the Giants have gone on the road to face the Red Sox, who lead the American League in rotation ERA, and the Phillies, who lead the National League in rotation ERA, at a time when they are struggling to jell despite spending more than $200 million to create lineup stability with Soler, Chapman and center fielder Jung Hoo Lee.

Does it make it any easier to be reminded that the Giants are losing to good teams?

“No, because we believe we’re a good team,” Chapman said. “I’m not taking anything away from the Red Sox and I’m not going to take anything away from the Phillies. Both great teams. But I think we’re a great team, too. We can put up better fights. … It’s been too much of a common theme for us lately.”

Other than a morale-boosting victory, what the Giants needed more than anything on Monday was length from their starting pitcher after Keaton Winn failed to make it out of the first inning Saturday and the Phillies exhausted Webb after four innings on Sunday. It didn’t work last week at Fenway Park when they tried to cover Snell’s turn by using right-hander Daulton Jefferies (who was designated for assignment on Monday) as a bulk pitcher behind an opener. And with the Giants in the middle of a 16-day stretch without a break, Melvin had no appetite for another bullpen game Monday — especially prior to starting a series at Coors Field.

So the Giants turned to one of their better pitching prospects to take Snell’s spot. Black earned the assignment by following up an impressive spring by posting a 1.01 ERA in six games for Sacramento. But he didn’t work past the fifth inning in any of them. He didn’t throw more than 71 pitches. In his last outing May 1, he no-hit Tacoma through four innings on 69 pitches. He wasn’t allowed to extend himself any further, keeping with the organizational plan to ramp up minor league pitchers on a basis so gradual you could lay railroad track on it.

“Studies show there’s an advantage to building them up steadily early in the season, having guys go from 4-60 (innings and pitches) to 5-75,” president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said last month. “We think it actually keeps guys healthier.”

But not equipped to throw 84 pitches in early May, which is how much the Giants got out of Black on Monday.

“He got a little tired at the end,” said catcher Jakson Reetz, who made his Giants debut behind the plate on Monday and received several of Black’s starts in Sacramento. “The last six or seven weeks he’s been really good. He makes adjustments during the game. He pitched really well until (the fifth). He’ll learn from that.”

A head of baseball operations must make broad-based decisions. A field manager must address the specific day-to-day, often inflexible needs of a club over a 162-game season. It was hardly the first time that those two interests conflicted when Black took the mound on Monday. But Melvin left little doubt where he stood on the matter.

“He hasn’t pitched deep into games (and) we needed him to go out for the fifth today,” Melvin said. “That’s where it all came loose. Early on, first two times through the lineup, he was really good. Proud of him.”

Did Melvin want Black to finish the fifth?

“I would’ve liked him to go six, the way we …” he said, pausing mid-sentence. “But it wasn’t in the cards.”

“He pitched well in times that are going to be most dicey for him, which would be early in the game in your first major-league start,” Melvin continued. “So we learned a lot about him there. The message to him was, ‘You pitched well. We just needed you to go a little bit longer than you were prepared to go.’”

Melvin said Black pitched well enough to earn another assignment Saturday in San Francisco. The Giants might need to cover more starts beyond that depending on how Snell progresses in his throwing sessions. The left-hander is scheduled to throw to hitters on Tuesday, Melvin said, with steps after that to be determined.

The Giants also hope to have catcher Patrick Bailey back from the concussion list on Saturday. Backup catcher Tom Murphy could return in four to six weeks, too, after tests showed that his Grade 1-2 knee sprain can be treated with rest and rehab.

Black didn’t have much time to spend with family and friends who had gathered on the field after Monday’s game. It’d be bad form for a rookie with one day of major-league service time to hold up the team bus to the airport. But Black spent enough time with his parents, George and Tara, and his brother, Dixon, to appreciate their glowing faces.

“Whirlwind of emotions for sure,” Black said. “Really just enjoying every moment. It means a lot being close to home. … The first game I came to, I sat behind Pat Burrell in right field. Good memories here.”

Burrell, the Giants’ hitting coach, was in the lineup at San Francisco exactly 17 years ago Monday when another Giants starting pitcher who’d torn through Triple A made his major-league debut. Tim Lincecum also faced the Phillies. He also got taken deep (by Aaron Rowand and Shane Victorino). He also lasted 4 1/3 innings. He also dressed in a hushed, losing clubhouse after his first start.

Things got better from there.

(Photo of Black taking in his debut: Eric Hartline / USA Today)

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