Giants and Logan Webb can envision a bright future after a series win in Atlanta

ATLANTA — The play was still developing. The relay throw home hadn’t arrived. But the beginnings of a smile were forming on Logan Webb’s face. He was backing up the plate and had an ideal viewing angle as catcher Patrick Bailey received Matt Chapman’s true-hop throw and applied a tag to prevent the Atlanta Braves from scoring the tying run in the fourth inning Thursday night.

Webb could foresee the result. Everything was lining up so perfectly.

For the first time all year, the San Francisco Giants might be allowed to feel the same way about their season.

They are still two games under .500 after taking a 4-2 victory from the Braves and clinching a series in front of a sellout crowd on Independence Day. But after taking two of three at Truist Park, they’ve claimed their first road series this season against a winning team. They carried over the positive vibes from when they concluded their homestand by taking two of three from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Finally, the Giants have the look of a team capable of sustaining momentum. Finally, after plugging along with a partial or acute starting pitching deficit all season, they appear on the cusp of coming out on the other side.

“Heck yeah, I’m excited,” said Webb, who overcame a shaky start to pitch seven strong innings and regain the major-league lead with 119 1/3. “I think we’re starting to get closer to our full potential. It’s how we expected it to look early on. I’m just excited that there are so many special arms on this team.”

Those arms are poised to include the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Blake Snell, who could be equipped to turn the corner on what’s been a disastrous season after signing a two-year, $62 million contract. Snell dominated in his rehab start for Triple-A Sacramento on Wednesday (five innings, no hits, nine strikeouts) and is scheduled to rejoin the Giants rotation when they open a homestand Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

If it seems like the Giants’ pitching has stabilized a bit in the past week, that’s because Webb’s start marked the fourth consecutive game in which they received at least five innings from a starting pitcher. That might not be anything to brag about, but it’s something they hadn’t gotten since April 15-18.

Another recent Cy Young Award winner, Robbie Ray, boosted his pitch count to 58 in three innings for Sacramento on Thursday as he reaches the final stages of his long rehab from Tommy John surgery. Ray’s Giants debut could come quickly out of the All-Star break when the team takes a seven-game road trip to Coors Field and Dodger Stadium. Left-hander Kyle Harrison, who received a bit of unscheduled shore leave when he sprained his ankle while doing lateral box jumps in the gym, said he felt great while throwing an extended bullpen session Thursday and is scheduled to return to the rotation Saturday at Cleveland.

Giants manager Bob Melvin has spent all season trying to figure out how to fill a nine-inning quota in virtually every game when Webb doesn’t start. Now Melvin is allowing himself to ponder a different problem: how to split up his three lefties (Snell, Ray and Harrison) when they all return to pitching every fifth day.

“It’s very exciting,” Melvin said of Snell, whom he managed last season with the San Diego Padres when the left-hander went 13-3 with a 1.23 ERA and held batters to a .153 average in his final 21 starts. “Look, I’ve seen it firsthand. When he pitches well, it’s really good and it’s a day you look forward to. … He’s here for a reason, and this feels like the first time we’ll get him back when he’s really in good form.”

The most encouraging part might be what they discovered in the absence of so many starting pitchers: two durable and dependable rookies who’ve established themselves while throwing 100 mph gas (Randy Rodriguez and Erik Miller), the emergence of an important bridge piece who is capable of pumping strikes and missing bats at any point in a game (Sean Hjelle), and two unconventional right-handed setup guys (Tyler Rogers, Ryan Walker) who continue to make hitters uncomfortable no matter how many times they face them.

There is no letup at any point in a 162-game season, especially in early July. The Giants have plenty of scaling up to do. They don’t have a ton of first-half wins banked like they did in 2016 or 2021. But in terms of being rugged and resilient, they already might have come through the most difficult part of their season. Without those emerging pitchers in the bullpen, there’s no way they’d be within one solid weekend of .500.

“What our bullpen has done has been exceptional,” Webb said. “We’ve had a lot of guys go down. They’ve thrown so many innings. They just do it. And they continue to do it. I wish they could just be bullpen guys and not start or come into the third (inning). But hopefully that’ll change soon.”

It isn’t just adding Snell and Ray — and Alex Cobb, if he can overcome his shoulder issues while continuing to build his pitch count on the rehab trail — that has Webb excited. It’s adding those guys in addition to the pitchers who emerged in their absence. That group also includes two right-handed rookies who took vastly different paths to the big leagues: 30-year-old Spencer Bivens, who will start or provide a bulk piece of Friday’s series opener at Cleveland, and 22-year-old Hayden Birdsong, who will start Sunday.

Adding back Snell on Tuesday will have one other impact. It means the Giants won’t try to squeeze an extra start out of Webb before the All-Star break. Instead of pushing him up to pitch on regular rest Tuesday and then sending him back to the mound in Sunday’s finale before the break, Webb will pitch just once on the homestand. And because he won’t start the Sunday finale for the second consecutive year, he’d be eligible to be selected to the NL All-Star team for the first time.

Webb is far from a lock to make the team. He leads the league in innings but ranks ninth in the NL with a 3.09 ERA, and it’ll be tough to leapfrog some of the names ahead of him. Chris Sale, Tyler Glasnow, Zack Wheeler, Shota Imanaga, Reynaldo Lopez and Sonny Gray are all having fantastic seasons among NL starters. So is Washington’s Jake Irvin, who could be the Nats’ lone representative. It wouldn’t be a shock if the league wanted to showcase Pirates rookie and budding star Paul Skenes.

In terms of name brand, though, Webb’s second-place finish in last year’s NL Cy Young Award balloting enhanced his stature. Even if he isn’t among the reserves named to the team Sunday, the league no doubt will have to replace other selected pitchers who won’t be eligible to compete if they start on the final Sunday.

Whether Webb is a first-time All-Star or not, his value to the Giants cannot be overstated. And he’s beginning to generate some momentum of his own.

Webb’s slider is finally turning into the sharpened weapon he’s been chasing for the better part of three seasons. He got as much as 21 inches of horizontal movement on the pitch Thursday night. He went to his slider nearly twice as often as he threw his changeup, an offering that had the highest run value of any offspeed pitch in the major leagues last season.

“Honestly it’s the best I’ve felt throwing it since 2021,” said Webb, referring to his breakout season. “I feel I jinx myself every time I say that because I’ll have stints where I feel it’s good and it kind of goes away. But I do feel good throwing it right now. I feel really good with my mechanics and what I’m doing.”

Webb’s slider is a different pitch than the one he threw in 2021 and employed to suppress the Dodgers in a pair of NL Division Series starts. He was averaging 12 inches of horizontal movement on his slider back then. He’s averaging more than 16 inches of horizontal movement now.

“I probably should have thrown a few more sliders in the first inning,” Webb said ruefully.

The Braves took a quick 2-0 lead when Webb allowed hits to three of the first four batters he faced, scoring their runs on a relay throw that bounced away from first baseman LaMonte Wade Jr. and a sacrifice fly. The Giants took a 3-2 lead in the fourth when Heliot Ramos hit a two-run home run and Chapman followed with a solo shot off Charlie Morton.

Then Chapman helped to protect the lead he provided. Webb started the fourth with a walk to Matt Olson, and Austin Riley followed with a double that Michael Conforto corralled in the left field corner. Chapman floated deep into the outfield grass to shorten Conforto’s portion of the relay and take it the rest of the way. The throw to the plate was 94 mph, according to Baseball Info Solutions, and arrived on a long hop that made it easier pickings for Bailey.

Webb’s reaction did not require an expert lip reader: “Let’s f—ing go!” he screamed.

Webb said he was cursing himself for allowing the double and “lollygagged” to back up the plate because he didn’t think Olson would be sent home.

“And then I saw the third base coach and it’s ‘Shh-shh-shoot,’” Webb said, smiling as he policed his language for reporters. “‘Here comes another run.’ Then Chappy probably threw that ball 102 mph right on the money. And Patty’s pick and tag was awesome.

“Both those guys, what they do defensively is awesome. They do something cool every day, whether it’s throwing a guy out or making a super sick play. I feel like every day there’s a play, like, ‘Holy cow, I’ve never seen that before.’ And then he does it again the next day.”

Melvin had seen it before. Chapman made that throw plenty of times when he and Melvin were together in Oakland. So did Olson, who was the A’s first baseman playing across from Chapman before he was dealt to Atlanta in a blockbuster trade.

“Look, when we were in Oakland, we tried to get it in his hands as much as we possibly can,” said Melvin, who couldn’t think of another major-league infielder who takes outfield relays as deeply as Chapman does. “I guarantee you Ollie knew that the ball would be in Chappy’s hands. … When it was hit, I didn’t think we were going to have a chance. But I’ve seen him do that a lot.”

The Giants got some of those 2021-style breaks to go their way, too. Chapman and Wade hit fluky doubles down the lines on checked swings. Chapman’s double scored a run in the sixth that allowed Rogers and Camilo Doval to operate with a bit more latitude in the eighth and ninth. Doval, who was pitching a big-league game on his birthday for the first time, got the Braves to chase his late-breaking slider while recording his 16th save.

The road trip won’t get any easier in Cleveland, where Guardians manager Stephen Vogt — another of Melvin’s former A’s players — has his team on a 102-win pace. But it’s not so important how the Giants regard the opponent across the way. It’s more important how they regard themselves.

“Recently we’ve been hitting home runs that have had a huge impact, not only on the score but how we feel about ourselves,” Melvin said. “We know we can score quickly. Coming up on the break, we knew we had three good teams in a row. We have another one coming. So (to win a series) adds to the confidence.”

(Photo: Jason Allen / Associated Press)

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