Giants’ Birdsong looks like he belongs in MLB debut vs. Cubs

Author:
NBC Sports Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO — In every way, Hayden Birdsong looks the part. 

The 22-year-old right-hander is 6-foot-4 with a frame that is starting to fill out. As he walked confidently up the dugout steps on Wednesday evening to begin warming up in the bullpen, long blonde hair flowed out of the back of his Giants cap and a thin blonde mustache sat above his upper lip. When he finally took a big league mound for the first time in his life, the fastball came zipping in at 98 mph. 

It’s the starter package for a power pitcher, which is why it was so curious when Birdsong took the mound for a highly anticipated debut and started firing warmup pitches to the smooth sounds of Michael Bubl√©.¬†

Birdsong was the third Hayden to ever pitch in an MLB game. He might have been the first one, period, to ever warm up to Bubl√©. 

“That has literally never been my walk-up song,” he said afterward. “I was like, you know what, he says birds flying, and I was like, let’s do it. It was out of nowhere. I kind of liked it. When the bass dropped, I was like, yep, let’s go.”

“Feeling Good” starts with the lyrics “birds flying high, you know how I feel,” and over and over again the crowd at Oracle Park heard “and I’m feeling good.” That was the theme of the night for Birdsong, who didn’t get the win, but certainly looked like he belonged as the Giants beat the Chicago Cubs 4-3.¬†

The Giants desperately needed someone to give them five innings and Birdsong came an out away, falling short when Seiya Suzuki hit his 97th pitch over the wall in center. He still had a solid line in his debut — three earned on six hits, three walks and five strikeouts — and he showed the kind of poise and raw stuff that should have him in the big league rotation for years.

“He’s got legit stuff,” catcher Patrick Bailey said. “Legit stuff. We’ve just got to keep it on the plate.”

At times, that was a struggle. Birdsong fell behind in counts, but he showed an ability to claw back, mixing his fastball with a changeup, slider and curve. The fastball, which topped out at 98.4 mph, got him to the big leagues, but it’s the changeup that was the revelation in his debut. 

A grip change helped the pitch take off this year, and he used it for a pair of strikeouts. Manager Bob Melvin liked that Birdsong felt so comfortable throwing it 21 times, and Bailey said it could become an elite offering. 

There were enough flashes Wednesday to show why the Giants have been so excited about Birdsong since taking him in the sixth round two years ago. They always have felt he is underrated as a prospect, but he got off to a good start in Double-A and carried a slight velocity bump over to Triple-A, where he struck out 14 in two starts. 

In late February, Birdsong hit 98 mph in a spring game and came away beaming. It was the hardest pitch he had ever thrown, and it was easy back then to imagine him helping the big league bullpen in the second half. 

The need right now is in the rotation, though, and Birdsong will get at least another turn or two to show he belongs. The Giants have Blake Snell coming back on the next road trip, but other reinforcements won’t be ready until later in July.¬†

The Giants always knew Birdsong’s fastball would play at this level. There have been questions about his command, but he stayed close enough to the zone Wednesday to have success. He also showed that he already is mentally ready for this level. If there were any nerves, they never showed. 

“I feel¬†nerves, but at the same time it’s another baseball game, and it’s fun,” Birdsong said. “I mean, I’m playing a kids sport that I’ve been playing since I was four years old and it’s the same thing. It’s the same thing over and over again. I love it. I love every second of it.”

Birdsong didn’t qualify for the win in his debut, but the Giants got a third straight when fellow 22-year-old Luis Matos hit a solo homer in the sixth, his first since returning from Triple-A. 

With the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Guardians looming after this series, the Giants needed to find a way to make up some ground. They’ll have a chance to get greedy on Thursday when Jordan Hicks tries to clinch a four-game sweep against a Cubs team that looks in danger of falling out of a lackluster wild-card race.¬†

The Giants are trying to get back in the middle of it, which looked unlikely last week given their lack of pitching. They turned to Birdsong to try and bridge the gap, and on Wednesday he looked ready for the assignment. 

There will be another one next Tuesday in Atlanta, and if Birdsong can keep filling the zone, he’ll be back at Oracle Park in a couple of weeks. He plans to stick with “Feeling Good” as long as it makes sense. Right now, that kind of sums everything up for a pitcher who is in the big leagues less than two years after he was drafted. 

“I’m going to keep rocking it,” he said.

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