Jeff Samardzija put up promising numbers in his first rehab start Friday with Triple-A Sacramento as he recovers from right shoulder tightness that put him on the disabled list May 30.
The Giants expect that he will make one more rehab start before rejoining the rotation in what they hope will be a resurrection of his innings-eating, lights-out form.
In three innings of work Friday against the Texas Rangers Triple-A affiliate the Round Rock Express, Samardzija (1-4, 6.56 ERA) gave up just one hit and struck out four on 43 pitches.
This performance is especially encouraging when compared with the numbers he put up in his April 14 rehab start in San Jose. Then coming back from a right pectoral strain that he sustained right out of the gate of Spring Training, he lasted just 2-2/3 innings throwing 61 pitches and allowing six runs, five hits, one home run and two walks while striking out five.
Common wisdom is to ignore the results of rehab starts, but in this case it was difficult not to consider those appalling April 14 numbers, because the majority of Samardzija’s big league starts to follow were no less appalling.
In his eight appearances he gave up a total of six home runs and in half of his eight starts he allowed four or more runs. But perhaps the most galling statistic of all was the fact that he walked 23 batters in just 35-2/3 innings. In over 200 innings last season he allowed just 32 walks.
And that number — 35-2/3 — was another huge problem. Though he has traditionally been known as an innings-eater, Samardzija saw the sixth inning just twice in his first eight starts this year.
Longevity has been a major struggle for the Giants rotation overall in 2018, with the five-and-dive performance becoming the uneasy norm. With the recent return of Madison Bumgarner and the imminent return of Johnny Cueto, though, they hope to pick up some of that slack. But the Giants need an innings-gobbling Samardzija revival, too.
San Francisco has benefitted from a shockingly leak-proof bullpen this season, a feature they’ve consistently gone without dating back to at least 2014.
Even without elite closer Mark Melancon for the first two months of the season, they found easy success with Hunter Strickland in the closer position. Strickland has racked up 13 saves in 16 chances and owns a cool 2.05 ERA.
Other bullpen highlights include, Reyes Moronta, a stalwart of the ‘pen who has 35 strikeouts in 30-2/3 innings and coincidentally also has a 2.05 ERA. Tony Watson has proved to be crucial as well, with a WHIP of 0.990, an ERA of 1.95 and 38 strikeouts in 32-1/3 innings. And of course, one of the quietest success stories in the pen has been Will Smith, who returned to the team in May after a long rehab from Tommy John, and has been no worse for the wear with 22 strikeouts in 17-2/3 innings and an ERA of 1.02.
But this kind of success is not sustainable if the starting five can’t hold up their end of the bargain. Minor fissures are already beginning to show in a bullpen that has dutifully put up three to four innings of work on a consistent basis for the first 70 games of the season.
It’s arguable that Samardzija may have returned sooner than advisable from his pectoral strain the first time around, which could account for the sub-par results in April and May. But if the Giants get back the best versions of Samardzija, Cueto and Bumgarner in the coming weeks they could plausibly make a run in what has been a sleepy NL West Divison.
The Giants finish a three-game series with the Dodgers Sunday and will return to AT&T Park Monday for a re-match with the Marlins after losing three out of four in Miami this week.
Brandon Belt was re-activated from the disabled list Saturday to start in game two against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Pierce Johnson was sent back down to Sacramento to make way for Belt. … Evan Longoria will have surgery to repair the fifth metacarpal (pinkie knuckle) of his left hand Tuesday. He sustained a fracture after being hit by a Dan Straily fastball in the fourth inning of Thursday’s 16-inning, 6-3 victory over the Marlins. His recovery is expected to span six to eight weeks. … Brandon Crawford is expecting his fourth child and will go on the maternity list Monday.