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Maybe Giants manager Gabe Kapler doesn’t have to be so polarizing after all

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PHILADELPHIA – Evan Longoria hit a tiebreaking home run in the ninth inning Monday. He rounded the bases to a chorus of boos. And this is how you know you’re watching a major professional sporting event in Philadelphia:

Sometimes it takes an extra beat to realize who the boos are for.

They could’ve been for Phillies closer to Cory Knebel, who had blown a save in a loss to the Mets the previous night. They could have been for Phillies manager Joe Girardi, whose seat is sponsored by Duraflame and whose team has the unfortunate duality of being expensive and underwhelming. Perhaps a few of them were for Longoria, since, you know, booing opponents is an accepted part of the fan code of conduct.

When Giants manager Gabe Kapler walked to the mound in the bottom of the ninth, the question wasn’t whom the fans were booing, but why.

Were they commenting on Kapler’s tenure as a rookie manager here, which ended after 2019 and two mediocre seasons when he’d signed up for three? Or were they expressing dissatisfaction with the public stance Kapler took three days earlier in Cincinnati, announcing he would disappear into the clubhouse during the national anthem until he “feel (s) better about the direction of our country”?

Kapler is protesting America’s persistent failure to pass gun control legislation in response to an epidemic of mass shootings, but for some, his reasons are beside the point. For all the culture warriors on the airwaves and internet who used the Kapler news for their own pie-throwing purposes, and for as trending a topic as he became on Twitter, it was a much quieter scene before the first pitch Monday at Citizens Bank Park as a lone trumpeter sounded a somber yet resolute rendition of the national anthem.

Yes, Kapler had made an exception on Memorial Day. He stood at attention in front of the visiting dugout until the final note.

Hardly anyone noticed.


Gabe Kapler said he would not be on the field for the national anthem as a protest but made an exception for Memorial Day. (Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

Before the Giants’ 5-4 victory, Kapler wrote on his blog that he believes strongly in the right to protest, “I also believe strongly in honoring and mourning our country’s service men and women who fought and died for that right. Those who serve in our military, and especially those who have paid the ultimate price for our rights and freedoms, deserve that acknowledgment and respect, and I am honored to stand on the line today to show mine. ”

If there were fans here who sought to give Kapler their feedback, they had to wait until the bottom of the ninth to do so. That’s when he emerged from the dugout to make his first pitching change of the game. He took the baseball from Logan Webb, who had delivered an ace-level performance.

Webb had matched his season high with 10 strikeouts. He pitched efficiently and pumped strikes. He adapted as the shadows crept across the infield, going heavy with his whiff-inducing changeup while noticing that his slider, even after it backed up on him a few times against right-handers, was getting better results against lefties.

Nick Castellanos crushed one of those backed-up sliders as Webb gave up multiple home runs for the first time in 52 starts – a remarkable streak that dated to his second major-league game. Rhys Hoskins tagged one, too. Those notable blips aside, Webb bore a fine resemblance to the pitcher and staff leader who didn’t lose for 22 consecutive starts last season. As catcher Curt Casali noted, “This is about the time when he started turning things around last year, so hopefully this is a sign of even better things to come.”

After Webb dispatched three hitters on eight pitches in the eighth inning to preserve a 2-2 tie, Kapler greeted him in the dugout with a job-well-done handshake. Webb accepted it and went towel off. Then he reconsidered. He flipped a U-turn, found pitching coach Andrew Bailey and issued more of an order than a plea.

“I want to go back out there,” Webb told him. “This is my game.”

Great, Bailey told Webb, go deliver the message to Kapler yourself.

“If we score, I’m going back out,” Webb told Kapler.

“Webby, if we don’t score, you can go back out, ”Kapler replied. “If you really want the ball, it’s yours.”

Left-hander Jarlín Garcia hadn’t allowed a run all season, and the Phillies had two lefties, Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, due up first and third in the ninth. The matchups didn’t matter. Kapler was just waiting for Webb to ask.

“This is what happens when a guy really wants the ball,” Kapler said after the game. “It’s kind of a nice test to tell them they’re done and it’s like,‘ Hold on a second. I really want this. ‘ Sometimes it takes a moment to sink in and Logan had some thoughts going through his head. That’s what I love about him. He’s prepared for it. ”

After Longoria’s home run gave the Giants a 3-2 lead, Webb was Kapler’s choice to protect it.

“I wanted it, and everyone looked at me like,‘ you got it, ’” Webb said. “I was pretty confident going out there. I was excited… and two pitches later, I was out of the game. ”

Webb’s slider ran to a corner of the strike zone, but Schwarber elevated it for a home run. It was a moment that tied more than the score together.

Kapler’s team has leaked transmission fluid for weeks, and at 12-14 with one game remaining in May, the Giants are guaranteed their first losing month since August 2020. Just three days earlier in Cincinnati, Kapler summoned Jake McGee from the bullpen, handed him the ball and then had to call for a new pitcher. The Reds seized on the fact McGee’s name wasn’t on the official lineup card.

It was the kind of oversight that would have hounded Kapler in Philadelphia, where he once called for a reliever who hadn’t warmed up, or in his first season in San Francisco when he took stinging criticism for an illegal mound visit that forced Tyler Rogers to face another batter.

This might not be the most challenging month of Kapler’s time in San Francisco – competing in a quasi-bubble with health and safety protocols in 2020 was plenty stressful – but this is the choppiest it’s gotten between the lines. These are the times when managers are tested and scrutinized.

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And he’d just made a decision that backfired.

But winning is a powerful force. It mattered that the Giants won a franchise-record 107 games under Kapler last season. And it mattered that they won Monday night. Casali’s home run cashed in the automatic runner in the 10th inning and the Phillies could only plate theirs with a sacrifice fly as the Giants prevailed.

Kapler had to laugh in the postgame manager’s office. If Donovan Walton had walked to start the 10th, Casali would’ve gotten the bunt sign.

“That would have been a bad decision, clearly,” he said, smiling.

The decision to stick with Webb was not clearly bad. He had thrown 98 pitches and was cruising. He was still as solid a bet as anyone on the Giants staff to suppress home runs. And as an orthodox as it’s becoming for managers to avoid the penalty of letting a pitcher face a lineup for the third time, there’s actually a statistical case to be made that it becomes an advantage when pitchers face a batter for the fourth time.

But mostly, it was about trusting an ace. Even while making a decision that didn’t pan out, Kapler might have enhanced his reputation within the Giants clubhouse.

“He should 100 percent get that opportunity,” Casali said of Webb. “I didn’t know if they would let him do it. It’s more about earning the right to do it. “

“Webby’s our guy, you know?” left-hander Alex Wood said. “If they were going to let anyone go out for the ninth, that was the time. And we love seeing it. Guys love seeing their ace go back out there. ”

“He wanted it. He deserved it, ”said Wilmer Flores, whose two-run homer tied it in the sixth. “I think he had the right to ask for one more inning. We support it. Everybody was behind him. He’s earned the right one, and if it happens again, he should go out there. “

The questions in the postgame manager’s office bent toward an expected narrative. The feel-based decision to stick with Webb wasn’t something Kapler would have done in Philadelphia, right? Have some of his analytical edges softened a bit? Is he just a different guy now?

Well, actually…

In 2019, Kapler’s final season in Philadelphia, only three major-league managers allowed a starting pitcher to face a batter for the fourth time sea often than he did. Kapler didn’t limit his trust to an ace like Aaron Nola, either. He let Jerad Eickhoff face a hitter for a fourth time. He let Drew Smyly, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta do it, too.

It’s so easy to write the story that Kapler has changed from his time in Philadelphia to now. The actual story might be how everything has changed around him.

He works for a different front office that has no visible fractures between upper management and ownership. He has a different group of players who fully buy into the system because they’ve seen it work. He is in a different city where he might feel more comfortable expressing himself and using his public platform. He can grasp the lightning rod of the national anthem in an effort to create awareness and mobilize change and feel assurance that his organization will support him.

“The way I see it,” he said, “anything that sparks thoughtful conversation is good.”

Kapler wrote Monday that he will be donating to Everytown, an organization that seeks to end gun violence, and Heart & Armor, an organization that promotes veteran health and community re-engagement. He said he felt strongly about the work both organizations are doing.

“I feel they are worth a click and a look (for people to see) if those are good organizations to support,” he said. “I personally do.”

It’s easy to forget, but when Kapler visited Philadelphia for the first time as the Giants’ manager last year, it was early in the season. Ballparks were operating with distancing protocols and reduced capacities. All media availability was over video call. Monday afternoon was the first time Kapler walked into the visiting dugout during batting practice here and was confronted by a sweaty assemblage of reporters.

When a local columnist pressed Kapler on his time here, and how his perspectives might have changed, he responded with a story. He recalled a recent lineup exchange at home plate. The umpire looked at the opposing manager and said, “You’re old school.” Then he looked at Kapler and said, “You’re a blend.”

Something in the moment compelled Kapler to push back. He told the umpire that the old-school manager was more of a blend, too.

“And then I realized that… we’re all kind of blends?” Kapler said Monday. “Just, we’re somewhere on the spectrum. In Philadelphia, I was a blend of numbers and feel. And maybe I’ve gotten closer to the feel side with the Giants. But it’s not much, man.

“We’re all a little bit of everything.”

And there you have it. The manager whose introductory news conference set a record for the use of the word “polarizing” is telling us: We don’t have to see the world that way.

04.30 Photo of Logan Webb: Rich Schultz / Getty Images

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