Jordan Hicks

Giants' lack of pitching making workload ‘uncomfortable'

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ST. LOUIS -- Jordan Hicks broke into the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018 and pitched at Busch Stadium for five seasons. He got used to a familiar rhythm in the middle of the summer, when temperatures regularly approach 100 degrees and the humidity makes the sledding even more difficult for players.

Hicks would sit in the bullpen and dugout and watch as opposing starters labored through long innings. When their pitch count got into the high twenties in an inning, he would see the legs get heavy. That's when the Cardinals lineup tended to pounce.

On Saturday, Hicks experienced the other side of that.

After 99 appearances at Busch Stadium as a Cardinal, he made his first as a visitor and allowed a season-high five earned runs in a 9-4 loss that dropped the Giants to five games under .500. Hicks needed 29 pitches to get through the third, and even though he left the bases loaded, his legs never recovered. The Cardinals took the lead on Alec Burleson's three-run blast in the fourth and never looked back.

 "My legs were pretty dead after the third, to be honest," Hicks said.

It was one of his rougher days as a Giant, but for Hicks, there was still a significant silver lining. He reached the 80-inning mark for the first time in his career, passing his previous career-high of 77 2/3 innings, set back in 2018. It's an accomplishment Hicks is proud of, in large part because he has always wanted a chance to start every five days in the big leagues. 

Hicks joined National League innings leader Logan Webb as Giants who have already thrown at least 80 innings. The problem for the coaching staff right now is that it'll be a while before anyone else enters the club. 

Kyle Harrison is eight outs away but sidelined by a sprained ankle. Keaton Winn is the only other Giant even at the 40-inning mark, but he's headed for another MRI on his right elbow. After those four, the next seven pitchers on the team's innings leaderboard are relievers. 

It's a problem that the Giants don't currently have a solution for, and it is costing them games. Hicks departed with a one-run deficit, but because his bullpen is so exhausted, manager Bob Melvin ran Sean Hjelle out for a second inning. On his 27th pitch in 94-degree weather, Hjelle gave up a two-run homer. 

Hjelle has been excellent in short bursts this year and is pitching like someone who can get big outs late in games. But far too often, Melvin has needed him to help keep games close after a starter comes out in the fourth or fifth. 

"It's been a lot," Melvin said of the bullpen's workload. "We have some guys with extreme workloads at this point. (Ryan) Walker, (Erik) Miller and Tyler (Rogers') workloads are extreme. We've got to find a way, even in games that we're ahead, to take a little bit off their plate. Hjelle is a guy that can do it, but unfortunately, he had to pitch two innings, as well. 

"Randy (Rodriguez) is maybe a guy that can, too, but we've got to take a hard look at that right now because you're looking at (pitching) in half the games, more I think a little bit for a couple of these guys, and it's a lot. It's three of them that are in the top 10 (in appearances) that makes things feel uncomfortable."

Walker leads the majors with 39 appearances and Rogers is right behind him at 38. Miller is tied for ninth at 36. The Giants have three of the top seven in the National League in terms of appearances, a worrisome thought given how tight the NL Wild Card race is and how much they may need those guys in September, too. 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the Giants won't reach it until July at the earliest. That's when they expect to get Harrison, Ray and possibly Cobb back, but at some point in the second half, Harrison and Hicks will also run up against innings limits. Multiple relievers are going to blow past their previous highs, too.

In the meantime, there are games to win, and the Giants at least have Webb waiting. He'll cross the 100-inning mark on the final day of the trip and Hicks hopes to get there soon, too. He said his body feels good in general, and he has zero issues with his arm. 

"I feel good but this is a hard one to ask me because it was the hottest game of the year by 10 degrees," he said. "Ask me after the next one. I think I feel good. My legs were just kind of cashed early today."

The Cardinals took advantage, but Hicks' next start will come back in the comfortably cool weather of Oracle Park. After that, it's a trip to Atlanta and Cleveland, putting more stress on a pitching staff that is 26th in the big leagues in ERA.

It's a problem that is threatening to derail the season, and Melvin's frustration Saturday showed it's one that is keeping him up at night. The Giants will fly home Sunday for seven straight at home, and they currently have just two starting pitchers in their five-man rotation. 

There are no easy answers, although Hicks at least offered a way for a happier flight home. 

"Let's win tomorrow, get out of here, and move on to San Francisco," he said. 

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