Spencer Bivens leads Giants to a fist-pumping series victory over Dodgers

SAN FRANCISCO — When the Giants named Spencer Bivens as their starting pitcher on Sunday, they were not expecting a conventional outing. Or anything close to it.

Bivens was a 30-year-old reliever with five games of major-league experience. In 27 relief outings for Triple-A Sacramento this season, his longest appearance had been three innings. He hadn’t been a regular contributor to a rotation since 2021, and that came with the Gastonia Honey Hunters of the independent Atlantic League. He joined Gastonia that season in a trade from the West Virginia Power. He had left his car in Pittsburgh when he left to join his new team. It was more than a month before he saw it again.

Packing light? Leaving on a moment’s notice? Those were not character quirks of someone who gives in to wanderlust. Bivens pitched for a French pro team, Savigny-sur-Orge, and bounced around indy ball because those were the only places that offered him a locker and access to a mound. In 2020, he was learning introductory Czech phrases while preparing to join Kotlářka Praha, a team in the European Extraliga, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. So he pitched for an independent team called the Steel City Slammin’ Sammies, instead.

He kept telling himself: The next opportunity to keep pitching might be a springboard to something bigger and better, which might be a springboard to something bigger and better, which might be …

Now that he’s fulfilled a dream and reached the major leagues, he hasn’t stopped viewing every opportunity as something that could be more than it appears.

So he didn’t view his start on Sunday like he was an opener or a bulk reliever. He was a starting pitcher. That’s how he prepared for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“The first career start, I have been waiting my life for that,” Bivens said. “I treated it like a real start.”

That’s exactly what it was. Bivens retired Shohei Ohtani on a hard groundball to start a seven-pitch first inning. He got three quick outs on 10 pitches in the second inning. He pitched around a double in a 13-pitch third inning. He retired three of four batters on 15 pitches in the fourth inning. And with the Giants pouring it on against their arch-rivals, taking a 9-0 lead thanks to a record-setting flurry of extra-base hits, manager Bob Melvin decided to let Bivens take the mound in the fifth and try to qualify for the winning decision.

Chris Taylor hit a solo home run and Kiké Hernandez hit a one-out single, and when Ohtani stepped to the plate, Bivens knew without making eye contact with the Giants dugout that he would be facing his last batter. He threw three pitches — a well-located sinker, a high four-seam fastball, a slider that veered onto Ohtani’s hands — and the feared slugger swung through all of them.

Bivens flexed and clenched and spun his body down the mound and threw a right cross, electrifying the sellout crowd as well as his teammates. It might have been the most pure joy that a Giants player has exhibited on the field all season, and it was the image that will endure longest from a 10-4 victory that allowed the Giants to take their first home series from the Dodgers in three seasons.

“It was a big spot,” Bivens said. “Doesn’t matter who’s in there, I didn’t want to give up that run. But it happened to be Shohei.”

It was a bigger spot than just one confrontation. The Giants were coming off an excruciating, 11-inning loss that left them with a zillion regrets as well as an exhausted bullpen. They weren’t sure when they arrived at the ballpark on Sunday how they would make it through a second consecutive game without a conventional starter. As much as the Giants have become accustomed to piecing together nine innings this season, there comes a point when almost every arm is past its sell-by date. The team was so desperate for coverage that it designated right-hander Spencer Howard for assignment and called up right-hander Landen Roupp, who hadn’t pitched for Triple-A Sacramento since May 16 because of an elbow flareup and traveled to San Francisco straight from his rehab assignment in the Arizona Complex League.

Melvin hoped that Bivens and Roupp would make enough pitches to get the Giants through the fifth inning. And if not? The backup plan involved lighting a few prayer candles or hoping for an unseasonal monsoon.

Instead, Bivens rescued the Giants while giving them more than they could have expected. Springboards can work both ways.

“He’s pretty confident in what he does,” Melvin said of Bivens, who picked up his first major-league win when he made his debut June 16. “He’s got a much better pitch mix now with the changeup. Obviously, to let him go through Ohtani three times, we have a lot of faith in him.  Two times tops is what I was looking at, but wanted to get him the win there.

“After a couple outings, he’s got control of his emotions. And we leaned on him today pretty hard. He’s rewarding us almost every time he goes out there.”

Bivens also struck out Ohtani on five pitches in the third. Neither of the first two plate appearances went very deep, but the right-hander had shown his full arsenal. When facing Ohtani a third time, Bivens said he didn’t attempt to get cute. He merely trusted that the results would work out if he executed. It’s a mindset he honed last winter while pitching for Culiacán in the Mexican Pacific League.

“High-leverage situations every time and crazy crowds,” said Bivens, who overhauled his pitch mix after signing with the Giants. “I’m confident in my ability to handle the moment.”

And when Bivens let out his emotion, it might have been the shockwave that his teammates needed in what’s been a daunting stretch in a draining season.

“That was awesome, man,” Giants catcher Patrick Bailey said. “It’s kind of humbling, just thinking about it, talking with guys in the dugout. Everyone’s saying, ‘Man, this couldn’t have happened to a better guy.’ His story is just awesome. To have that emotion on the mound, you can just see his life, see his story out there. It was really cool and special to be a part of it.”

Was Bailey just as curious as everyone else Sunday morning about how the Giants would get through nine innings?

“Yeah, we made a lot of jokes about it,” Bailey said. “But we did it. Big performance from Bivens, unbelievable for Roupp to come up here from Arizona and do what he did. Very selfless bullpen. … With Bivens, his stuff’s been good the whole time and today he was locating the sinker, locating the cutter, the slider. He threw some good changeups. It’s as good as he’s been.”

The Giants poured it on against James Paxton and a Dodgers bullpen that was nearly as taxed. Bailey collected two of the Giants’ 10 doubles, which was the most in a game in the franchise’s San Francisco era. The last time they hit more doubles in a game was April 11, 1912, when they collected 12 of them at Brooklyn.

It’ll be vital that the Giants win series against the pack of teams contending with them in the NL wild-card standings, especially now that tiebreakers aren’t settled with a game on the field, and it’ll be valuable to hold as many season series victories as possible at the end of the season. In that respect, taking two of three from the Dodgers, who are expected to win the NL West with ease, might not be as significant as taking two of three from the Cardinals or Diamondbacks or Padres.

But the Giants need to start winning series, period. And there’s an emotional lift that comes from taking a series against their top rival, one that had won 13 of its last 16 games in San Francisco entering this series and keeps attracting more and more blue blobs of vocal fans here. The Giants had been outscored 42-89 in those 13 losses.

It won’t get easier on the Giants’ upcoming road trip to play winning teams in Atlanta and Cleveland. But at least they have a travel day to rest their bullpen and three starting pitchers (Hayden Birdsong, Jordan Hicks, Logan Webb) listed on the probables sheet. And perhaps they’ll carry a little momentum into Atlanta, too.

“I hope so,” Bailey said. “Reflecting on the series, this is obviously the best baseball we’ve played. That’s the expectation we need to set for ourselves: to show up every day and be at our best. I feel at our best we can beat anybody. We’ve taken a series from the Dodgers, from the Phillies, really good teams. We just have to show up every day and be at our best.”

Every day can be a springboard. Their starting pitcher on Sunday understood that concept better than anyone.

Amid the zipping of suitcases in the postgame clubhouse, Bivens was asked about his journey to the big leagues. He answered politely, even if he knew his answer wouldn’t necessarily be a helpful one.

“Today I didn’t think about it at all,” he said. “I’m a major leaguer. I try not to think too much, go day by day. Just blessed to be here.”

(Photo of Bivens: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

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