SF Giants get the best of former reliever Littell to beat Rays

SF Giants get the best of former reliever Littell to beat Rays

SAN FRANCISCO — Zack Littell’s last two walks off the mound at Oracle Park have not been happy ones.

Eleven months, three teams and a new role after publicly airing his grievances with manager Gabe Kapler last September, never to be seen in a Giants uniform again, Littell marched back to the visitor’s dugout in the sixth inning Tuesday evening after his shutout bid evaporated and his former club took a commanding lead in an eventual 7-0 win.

Littell, now a starter — not an opener — for the Rays, traded zeros with Jakob Junis and Sean Manaea for five innings, frustrating Kapler enough to get him ejected in the fourth inning, before the Giants’ long-dormant bats revved up to finish with seven runs on nine hits, one of their best showings since the trade deadline.

Thairo Estrada homered to left, breaking the scoreless tie, and Wade Meckler lined a single into center for his first MLB hit, bringing Rays manager Kevin Cash out with the hook. No protesting from Littell this time. But on the first pitch from new reliever Kevin Kelly, Wilmer Flores went yard, too.

It was the 10th time this season the Giants have homered multiple times in an inning — but their first since June 13, a drought that dates back about as long as their futility at the plate.

“I think tonight we swung the bat much better and we had some good fortune,” said Kapler, whose vantage point was the television feed in the batting cages from the bottom of the fourth on after his ejection. “I think that’s why we had some crooked numbers and a really good victory.”

The win was only the Giants’ third in their past 11 games, and it came at an opportune time to pad their advantage in the wild card standings. Among their competition for the three spots, the Cubs, Phillies, Marlins and Reds all lost, keeping the Giants (64-56) 2½ games from falling out of the playoff picture.

Littell said afterward that it was “definitely fun” facing his former teammates and that he bore no ill will for how his tenure in San Francisco ended. Kapler echoed that sentiment before the game.

“I love every guy in that locker room, coaches, staff,” Littell told reporters in the visitor’s clubhouse. “It’s always fun to compete against guys you know. You get a little head nod the first time through. I thought they went out there and grinded some at-bats out and put good swings on balls.”

Estrada was moved to the nine-hole with the rookie Meckler, in his 94th game out of college, batting second for the second straight night in an attempt to will the Giants out of their prolonged funk. The effects of which had begun to take their toll on Kapler, who took out his frustrations on home plate umpire Chad Whitman.

Whitman’s third questionable strike call on Meckler in his first two at-bats, both ending in strikeouts, was the tipping point for Kapler, who began barking from the dugout, earning his second ejection of the season, before getting his money’s worth in a heated face-to-face exchange.

“Obviously I didn’t think those were strikes,” Kapler said. “Wade didn’t think they were strikes. I was obviously just irritated and reacted, but really reacted on behalf of Meck, who deserves to be stood up for by all of us.”

Meckler, whose command of the strike zone Kapler compared to LaMonte Wade Jr. and Brandon Belt, said he appreciated Kapler’s show of support.

“It feels very good to have a manager who will go out there and stand up for you, especially when you can’t really say anything as a player,” Meckler said. “I don’t want to come off as disrespectful to (the umpires) and say anything. I’ve played two major-league games. Eventually (I hope) to build a reputation that I know what the strike zone is and if I say something, there’s a cause behind it.”

The Giants had lost five of their past six bullpen/bulk-inning games before getting some of the best work of the year from Junis and Manaea.

After surrendering a season-high 18 hits in the series opener, the tag-team duo combined to limit the Rays three hits Tuesday night over 7⅓ scoreless innings.

“Junis was as good as he’s been,” Kapler said. “He came out with a really sharp slider. I think Manaea felt the momentum of Junis’ outing and just attacked the strike zone with his pitches. He was really effective at the top of the zone. I think Sean ran out of gas just a little there at the end.”

Recording called strikes or whiffs nearly half the time he threw his signature slider, Junis struck out a season-best seven batters. He took down the first four innings, throwing his most pitches since June 22 (62), before handing off to Manaea, who struck out five over 3⅓.

Meckler showed off the other aspects of his game, too, making a sliding catch in center field and beating out a dribbler to second for his second hit of the night. A former walk-on who was cut from his college team, Meckler slapped his hands as he reached first base for the first time as a major leaguer after his line drive single in the sixth.

His reaction to his first hit?

“Relieved,” he said.

He doesn’t yet know he plans to do with the keepsake, but it might make a nice consolation prize for his mom, who was at the ballyard but not in her seat for either of her son’s two hits.

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Michael Conforto doubled home Joc Pederson as the Giants piled on with two runs in each of the seventh and eight innings. It was the third hit of the game for Conforto, who now has multiple hits in his past four games. Lifting his foot to avoid the tag of catcher René Pinto, Pederson slipped his left hand across the plate in an acrobatic slide that withheld a challenge from the Rays.

Flores, who was scratched Monday with an ear infection, returned to the lineup with his team-leading 16th home run of the year.

Estrada’s homer was his first since he returned 10 days ago from a monthlong absence.

Kapler liked what he brought to the bottom of the order, lengthening a lineup that has struggled to string together rallies for the better part of two months.

“Estrada at the bottom of the lineup is a dangerous, dangerous hitter,” he said. “I think what gives us our best chance to win games going forward is everybody having the flexibility to hit in different spots in the lineup in the same way that we like our defenders to be able to play all over the field.”