SF Giants waste magical performance by Jordan Hicks, fall to Pirates in extras

SAN FRANCISCO — A pair of lousy sliders from Taylor Rogers sank the Giants in extra innings on Saturday night.

Rogers replaced closer Camilo Doval in a tie game in the 10th inning, then allowed back-to-back home runs on back-to-back hanging sliders to Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes as the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Giants, 4-3, in front of 34,841 fans at Oracle Park.

“Just a couple breaking balls that were up in the zone,” said manager Bob Melvin. “He’s done really well against righties this year. He was next in line for that. Just hung a couple.”

Jorge Soler blasted a two-run shot in the bottom of the 10th to give the Giants hope, but they couldn’t get the tying run across against Pirates closer David Bednar.

It was an anticlimactic loss for the Giants, who fell to 13-15 and wasted a magical performance by Jordan Hicks.

The first inning foreshadowed a fascinating evening as Hicks struck out each of the Pirates’ first three batters on the same pitch, a splitter that evaporated from midair and reappeared in the catcher’s mitt.

The splitter was his pitch all night long. He threw splitters low beneath the zone to induce poor swings. He threw them up in the zone to change the hitters’ eye levels. Sometimes, he threw them right over the middle.

Mixing in about an equal number of high-90s sinkers, Hicks was carving up the Pirates with ease through six scoreless innings until he allowed a leadoff single in the seventh and turned the game over to the Giants’ bullpen.

Hicks finished with a career-high nine strikeouts, eight on the splitter.

“It’s about finding my starting point, where I’m looking, where I’m trying to start the pitch,” he said. “I think it was just a little too low when we started the season. Seeing that pitch evolve over the last few games, I’m just really happy with it. I want to keep it right there.”

Hicks rarely threw the splitter until this year. The pitch started as a hobby back in 2019. He knew it was nasty. But he rarely threw it because he knew the reputation: splitters ruin arms.

With the fingers split apart and the ball resting between them, “that’s when you can get hurt because there’s no resistance against the ball being thrown and it really puts a lot of pressure on the elbow,” longtime manager Joe Maddon once said.

Hicks knew it too, and it’s why he put the splitter in his pocket and told himself he’d use it again later in his career.

“It’s one of those pitches,” he said last week.

This offseason, after he signed his three-year, $44-million contract with the Giants, he removed his self-installed restrictions and decided to set the splitter free.

Hicks, who threw just 18 splitters during the entire 2023 season, threw 37 of them on Saturday night, 22 of which were swung at, 11 of which were whiffed over and eight of which ended on a strikeout.

“The split is a real weapon,” Melvin said.

A former reliever who once threw a 105-mph fastball, Hicks is now looking like a premier starting pitcher who ranks seventh in the majors with a 1.59 ERA through six starts.

“I just really wanted to come out here with a lot of confidence in my pitches,” he said. “I know I have pretty good stuff and I thought, ‘if I can be in the zone more with it, these kinds of things might happen.’ I really like where I’m at. But today was a tough loss so it’s hard to be very enthusiastic about it.”

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