SF Giants’ toughest test of season arrives as team’s 2021 MVP hits the injured list

LOS ANGELES — If the best ability is availability, few players have provided more value to their teams over the last decade than Brandon Crawford.

Since Crawford made his first Opening Day start in 2012, the Giants shortstop has played the fifth most games of any major leaguer and has cemented his legacy as one of the 10 most valuable position players in the franchise’s storied San Francisco era history.

In the midst of the best season of his career, Crawford received the most frustrating news a player who prides himself on durability can hear. The Giants informed him Monday he’d need a stint on the 10-day injured list to heal from a mild left oblique strain.

The news came on what was expected to be a positive day for San Francisco as the club welcomed right-hander Kevin Gausman back from the Family Medical Emergency list and All-Star Buster Posey back from a two-week stint on the injured list.

“It’s frustrating from a lot of perspectives,” Crawford said in the dugout at Dodger Stadium. “I’ve felt so good recently, and most of the year, but especially recently, but now having so many games against (the Dodgers) coming up that I won’t be a part of.”

Crawford felt a slight tweak in his oblique during his final swing of Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and said the pain persisted when he returned to the field to play defense. The 34-year-old shortstop was optimistic a few days of rest would allow him to return to the lineup quickly as he did after exiting Friday’s game with a left hamstring cramp, but a MRI on Thursday in Los Angeles convinced the Giants to place him on the injured list.

“It’s tough and I think the only thing to do when you’re met with a challenge like this is shift focus to the opportunity that (Thairo) Estrada has to get this little run of playing time,” manager Gabe Kapler said Monday. “It’s obviously important to acknowledge it’s a blow when you lose arguably our best bat all year long.”

Thairo Estrada, who was acquired in exchange for cash considerations after the Yankees designated him for assignment in April, is the only other Giants player to appear in a game at shortstop this year. In 31 at-bats, he’s recorded 10 hits including a 431-foot grand slam against the Diamondbacks, but even a team that’s touted its depth all season long knows there’s no way to replace what Crawford provides the club both on offense and defense.

A three-time Gold Glover, Crawford is having his best defensive season since he last won the award for his play at shortstop as he ranks among the top 10 defenders in the majors in Outs Above Average, a range-based fielding metric. A three-time All-Star and 2015 Silver Slugger Award winner, Crawford is having a historic offensive season for a shortstop in his mid-30s as his 18 home runs lead the Giants while his .909 OPS is more than 100 points higher than his previous career-high.

The only three shortstops aged 34 or older to post an OPS above .800 over a full season in the last 50 years are Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin and Derek Jeter, so Crawford is in elite company.

Unfortunately for the Giants, he’s also in elite company on the injured list as fellow infielders Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria and Tommy La Stella are all still sidelined with various issues.

“It’s been talked about a lot how deep our bench has been and I think we have to look at that and the positives and know that the guys that are out there are going to perform well,” said Posey, who returned to the lineup in the third slot in the order Monday.

Crawford’s absence comes at a particularly difficult time for San Francisco as the Giants opened a stretch of playing seven games in the next 11 days against a Dodgers team that begins Monday’s series only one game back in the National League West.

The injured list placement marks only the second time Crawford has been placed on the IL during his career as a 2017 hamstring strain kept him off the field for a brief stretch. His remarkable durability allowed him to set the Giants franchise record for games played at shortstop this June before he even hit 10 years of major league service time, but as the Giants have proven this year, even the most reliable players have been ailed by aches and pains.

Of the nine Giants hitters who started on Opening Day in Seattle this season, seven have now been placed on the injured list while one of the two who has remained healthy, Mauricio Dubón, was demoted to Triple-A in June.

Kapler said the Giants’ decision to promote Jason Vosler, a left-handed hitting infielder who is not considered an option to play shortstop, over Dubón on Monday was reflective of the team’s confidence in Estrada. With Crawford out, second baseman Donovan Solano will provide depth behind Estrada while Vosler is likely the club’s emergency option.

“(Estrada) has looked good everywhere we’ve put him and he’s had good at-bats,” Crawford said. “I would obviously rather be out there, but I think he can step in and be a good replacement.”

Even if Estrada is good, there’s no replacing great, which is what Crawford has been all year. For a Giants team that’s passed nearly every test it’s been handed this season, the toughest one yet has just arrived.

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Author: Kerry Crowley