Boos rang throughout AT&T Park in Thursday night’s ninth inning after San Diego’s Josh Bard blooped an Armando Benitez pitch into left field for a two-run single. The fans’ displeasure conveyed impending doom. But Benitez, the object of the scorn, remained calm.
“I didn’t worry about it,” he said later with a reassuring smile.
Benitez indeed remained in control of the situation. He coaxed a popup from the next hitter, Mike Cameron, to preserve the Giants’ 5-3 decision over the Padres that gave Bruce Bochy his first managerial victory with San Francisco.
After losing their first two games, the Giants regarded this triumph as more than just a milestone for Bochy.
“I know it’s a long season,” second baseman Ray Durham said. “But you don’t want to be climbing out of an 0-3 hole with L.A. coming in and then going on the road.”
“I’ll be honest. The last thing we wanted to do was to open up this thing getting swept,” Bochy said after the Giants avoided their fifth 0-3 start since moving to San Francisco in 1958.
A lot happened for the Giants before Benitez took the mound: Matt Morris’ six solid innings, Barry Bonds’ first-inning RBI double off the base of the right-center-field wall, sparkling defense and a four-run uprising in the fifth inning that stemmed from patience and luck.
All of it would have been undone if Benitez had squandered his save opportunity — as he did 12 times during the previous two seasons, which fueled the fans’ disdain.
The Giants almost didn’t need Benitez. They took a 5-1 lead into the ninth, which Steve Kline began by retiring the first two Padres hitters. Then Marcus Giles doubled and Brian Giles rolled an infield single up the middle. Although Bochy could have stuck with Kline, a left-hander, to face left-handed-batting Adrian Gonzalez, Benitez was summoned to fulfill his role.
“He’s a closer,” Bochy said. “When it gets to that situation, he’s in the ballgame.”
Benitez promptly loaded the bases by walking Gonzalez on four pitches, although he had a plausible explanation for doing so.
“We did it on purpose,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better if you stay away from somebody who can hurt you. … It’s not like I was afraid of him. I was careful with him.”
Bard’s fly was softly hit but nowhere near a Giants defender, enabling the Giles brothers to score. Up came Cameron, representing the potential go-ahead run. Cameron was 1-for-12 lifetime off Benitez, who remained unimpressed with his own success.
“I didn’t want to play around with Cameron,” Benitez said. “One mistake and he can crush it.”
Cameron lifted a 2-2 pitch to Durham, ending the drama.
After accumulating only nine at-bats with runners in scoring position in their first two games — the 4.5 per-game average was the National League’s lowest — the Giants finally sustained some offense in the fifth, when they broke a 1-1 tie.
San Francisco benefited from San Diego starter Clay Hensley’s wildness and a little luck. With two outs, Hensley prolonged the fifth by walking Roberts, Omar Vizquel and Bonds to load the bases.
After taking a close 3-1 pitch for a strike, Durham singled to right field, scoring Roberts and Vizquel.
“If I hit that ball, I’d beat it into the ground or roll over and hit it to second base or shortstop,” Durham said, referring to Hensley’s 3-1 delivery. “Once he went to 3-2, I knew he didn’t want to walk me and that he’d get something up. I think it was a cutter or a slider he threw and I got pretty good wood on it.”
Rich Aurilia lifted a popup to shallow left field, where Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and Khalil Greene, the shortstop, converged on the ball. Kouzmanoff backed into Greene and knocked him over, enabling the ball to fall untouched for an RBI single. Ryan Klesko, who went 3-for-4, followed with a clean single up the middle to drive in the inning’s final run.
Defense contributed to the Giants’ balanced effort. Roberts made a lunging grab of Greene’s fly to shallow center field in the second inning. Durham complemented his clutch hit with a fielding gem, gloving Gonzalez’s sixth-inning grounder by diving to his right and throwing from his knees for the out at first.
Morris, who improved to 7-3 lifetime against San Diego, surrendered only one hit through four innings. Then he became a tightrope walker, stranding two Padres in each of his final two innings.
“I thought that they were pretty aggressive, but I got it in my head that they were going to be aggressive,” Morris said of the Padres hitters.
Getting their first victory out of the way freed the Giants to pursue other objectives.
“Now we can relax and play our archrivals,” Kline said.