Keaton Winn is helping Giants take the sting out of the Alex Cobb setback

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Keaton Winn is helping Giants take the sting out of the Alex Cobb setback

SAN FRANCISCO — Right-hander Keaton Winn threw two solid games on the Giants’ road trip last week. He held the Tampa Bay Rays to two runs in five innings. Then he held the Miami Marlins to one run in six. By almost any measure, it was a pair of satisfactory performances.

That’s not how Winn felt, though. His split-change, his best pitch, lacked tumble and bite. He improvised, stayed in the strike zone, mixed his slider and two-seamer, and leaned on his defense to deliver two competitive starts.

Back in the Bay Area, right-hander Alex Cobb watched both of Winn’s outings on television. Cobb is on the injured list and the Giants’ traveling party does not extend to rehabbing players. As a fellow practitioner of the splitter, Cobb picked up on Winn’s underlying distress. He knew that they would commiserate almost as soon as the team flight touched down in San Francisco.

“That was the first thing I said to him after that road trip,” Cobb said. “Fans from the outside probably saw two good outings. But I saw somebody grinding. I told him, `Hey, that’s how you have a great career.’ He didn’t have his best pitch for two games and he competed. But you’re going to want that split. So we sought each other out as soon as he got here.”

They looked at video. They talked about delivery cues. Cobb helped Winn unpack the mechanical reasons that the splitter, which is most effective when it is the least spin-efficient, was coming out too firm. Then Winn threw the pitch over and over Monday night against a patient New York Mets lineup in the Giants’ 5-2 victory on the shores of McCovey Cove.

Winn was more than satisfactory. He felt satisfied.

“This whole week I tried to pick apart that (last) outing from a mechanical standpoint and build on it,” Winn said. “I did and it felt great.”

Winn held the Mets to a solo home run from Pete Alonso while throwing an efficient 79 pitches in six innings. He extended himself into the seventh for the first time in a major league start, even if he didn’t get the satisfaction of retiring either of the two batters he faced. He did a passable Kevin Gausman impression, changing eye levels while throwing the highest mix of four-seam fastballs (40 percent) he’s ever thrown in a major league start.

Nick Ahmed continued to be surprisingly clutch in the No.9 spot, hitting a two-run single that put the Giants ahead in the second inning. Michael Conforto hit his first career home run against his former team. And the Giants pumped up the theatrics in a non-save situation, finally demonstrating the capacity of their newly installed LED lighting to turn the ballpark a blazing orange while bathing Camilo Doval in spotlights.

“It felt like I was in a movie,” Doval said through Spanish interpreter Erwin Higueros.

“I was scared at first,” said Conforto, who didn’t anticipate the complete darkness that preceded the Club Camilo Tranquilo Experience. “Yeah. I didn’t know we were doing that. I knew we had the lights but it was quite the show.”

Starting pitchers do not enter to that kind of flash or fanfare. But Winn’s contributions deserved the spotlight treatment on Monday, especially in light of unfortunate news about the rotation over the weekend. The Giants transferred Cobb from the 15-day IL to the 60-day list and used his 40-man roster space to acquire reliever Mitch White from the Toronto Blue Jays. As a result, Cobb cannot return any earlier than May 27. It wasn’t the most surprising decision after Cobb, 36, encountered shoulder and elbow turbulence while ramping up from offseason hip surgery. But it still counted as a disappointment for a veteran pitcher who appeared to be so far ahead of schedule as he pushed the pace of his rehab protocol all spring in the hopes of being available to return in April.

Now that Cobb is in a month-long penalty box of sorts, there’s no sense in pushing. He can take his time and ramp up as his arm and body allow. For many pitchers, that would mean returning to the minor league complex in Arizona where the training facilities are more spacious and less in demand and the weather is flawless.

But Cobb wasn’t going anywhere.

“I love being a part of the culture,” Cobb said. “I love when guys want to talk pitching. You are so quickly replaced in this game, which is totally understandable. It makes me feel useful in this little span of time we have together. I think I need as much as it might help other people.

“None of that is possible without somebody being extremely receptive on the other end and wanting to pick your brain. From my perspective it’s very impressive how receptive Keaton is along with his ability to comprehend and apply. You could see a light bulb go off. We were talking about something and he immediately wrote it down on a Post-it note and said, `I’m good.’ And he was.”

With Cobb out of the picture for at least another month, it’ll be up to Winn to continue to hold down a place in the rotation. Winn’s run of competitive starts has taken some of the sting out of Cobb’s setbacks.

“I wish he was back already,” said Winn, a 26-year-old from small-town Iowa who made his major league debut last season. “I’ve learned so much from that guy. This week, breaking down stuff, it’s been me and Alex. The guy’s been through everything, right?”

Is that a nice way of calling him old?

“Nicely, yeah,” Winn said.

Winn couldn’t remember a time he pitched into the seventh inning since an A-ball start in 2019. He found himself trying to make perfect pitches while giving up a hit and a walk and called it a learning experience. He also learned what it felt like to walk off the mound to a loud ovation from an appreciative home crowd.

“That was the first time I had that,” Winn said. “I can’t explain how good that felt, to feel like the city has your back. It was great.”

(Photo of Keaton Winn: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)