LOS ANGELES -- It might take years before the industry gets a true sense of how the pandemic impacted development within big league organizations, but from the start, teams knew that some players would be hurt far more than others. Tyler Fitzgerald, taken in the fourth round by the Giants in 2019, was in the camp of those who seemed like they would be significantly set back.
Fitzgerald played just a handful of games in Single-A after the draft, and there was nothing in that sample that indicated he needed to play at the alternate site in Sacramento the next summer. Those precious extra spots went to prospects who looked to be on the fast track like Camilo Doval, and first-rounders who could get some needed time with the big league staff, like Patrick Bailey, Hunter Bishop and Heliot Ramos.
Fitzgerald, like so many others who had been taken high but not high enough, was left at home. But he ended up finding a silver lining in the layoff.
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"I think that all actually kinda benefited me," he said earlier this summer.
Fitzgerald stayed in Louisville, where he had gone to college and worked hard on his game and body. As COVID was slowing down a bit, he got a call from Giants minor league coach Dennis Pelfrey, who was managing the Florence Freedom in the independent Frontier League. It was a four-team league best known for giving former All-Star infielder Brandon Phillips a place to play as he approached his 40th birthday, but Fitzgerald jumped at the opportunity.
He played games from Wednesday through Sunday and spent the rest of the week working out back in Louisville. When the minors opened back up the next spring, Fitzgerald began a steady climb, showing game-changing speed and 20-homer power. On Thursday, his big Triple-A season landed him at Dodger Stadium, fulfilling a dream that he wasn't sure would come true in 2023.
Fitzgerald watched all summer as others got the call to San Francisco. Finally, with the minor league season winding down, he was pulled from a game midway through and told to pack his bags. He admitted Thursday that he wondered if he would have to wait until 2024 for his debut.
San Francisco Giants
"I'd be lying if I said I knew this was going to happen. I didn't," he said. "But it was definitely exciting to finally hear that news yesterday. With the playoff race and all, you never know if they're going to call up a rookie this late in the season."
What Fitzgerald didn't know earlier this week was that the Giants view him as one of their best options to stay in that race. They are hoping Fitzgerald and Marco Luciano can provide a spark, and the two combined to reach base four times in a bitter loss Thursday. A night later, they took part in a handshake line.
Luciano singled twice, stole a base and scored a run. Fitzgerald launched his first big league homer -- scoring Luciano -- to pad the lead in the ninth. Sean Manaea did most of the rest of the heavy lifting, throwing seven dominant innings as the Giants beat the Dodgers 5-1.
After the win, Fitzgerald said he wasn't surprised by Manaea's night. His older brother, Mike, caught Manaea at Indiana State. Tyler grew up watching the left-hander dominate collegiate hitters.
Mike Fitzgerald was a late-round pick of the San Diego Padres, but he retired when he was told he needed Tommy John surgery after his second minor league season. A decade later, he was at Dodger Stadium to watch his little brother go deep.
"I kinda blacked out a little bit," Tyler said. "I think I ran the bases a little too fast. I should have enjoyed it a little bit more, but it was awesome. All the hard work that I put in, to hit that in the ninth inning, that's pretty special."
Fitzgerald became the eighth Giants rookie to hit his first homer this season. Some won't be around long-term, but the Giants are hopeful that their two latest additions can carve out roles heading into the offseason. Luciano hit two more rockets, showing the bat speed that could have him in line for the Opening Day job at shortstop. Fitzgerald will get another week to prove that he's ready to chase a 20-20 season in the big leagues.
Both are hoping to put their best foot forward, but for now, they're also being counted on. They joined the party on Friday as the Giants picked up a rare road win, keeping pace with the Chicago Cubs, who currently hold the final postseason spot in the NL. For Fitzgerald, the first homer was a long time coming, and he certainly will never forget that it happened in a rivalry game.
"I could hear the fans out there in center field all night," he said. "To put that swing on the ball and to round the bases and to cross home, it was just an awesome, special feeling."