Cain’s rhythm sets winning tone for Giants

SAN FRANCISCO – The latest band out of San Francisco plays baseball. The leading man is Tim Lincecum(notes), by his sport’s standard an absolute rock star, with the long hair and drug bust and emaciated look. Then there’s Jonathan Sanchez(notes), whose catcher calls his pitches “electric” – more Jimi Hendrix than Ben Franklin. In the background stands Matt Cain(notes), just plucking away at his bass, methodically, discreetly.

Fastball, changeup, curveball. Pluck, pluck, pluck. Slider, fastball, changeup. Pluck, pluck, pluck. For more than five seasons, Cain has been the guy with no pretense, perfectly content to cede the stage to those ahead of him while he thumps along as the group’s backbone.

Matt Cain was fantastic in a crucial Game 3 win over the Phillies.
(Getty Images)

And never question whether Cain is the C1-7 of the Giants, the fulcrum of the Giants’ rotation. He hypnotized the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday afternoon in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, throwing seven shutout innings of a 3-0 victory that gave the Giants a 2-1 series lead. There were no gaudy strikeout totals like Lincecum or Sanchez, no name value like his opponent, Cole Hamels(notes), or the Phillies’ other two starters, Roy Halladay(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes).

Just Cain at his purest, tightest, best.

“The only way you beat good pitching is you’ve got to pitch well, too, and our guys are doing that,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “We know how good their staff is, their whole ballclub.”

Down the stretch, the Giants went 18 games allowing three or fewer runs, the longest streak since 1917. The rotation’s peerlessness has continued into the postseason, and the numbers put up since Sept. 1 by Lincecum, Sanchez, Cain and rookie Madison Bumgarner(notes) – the drummer – seem too good to be real: 191 1/3 innings, 127 hits, 44 walks, 206 strikeouts and a 1.60 ERA. Over 50 playoff innings, the Giants have allowed eight earned runs, and Cain’s ERA after 13 2/3 innings is 0.00.

Sorry, H2O. This band has you beat.

“They’re pitching great,” Sanchez said. “They had a good year. But we’re up 2-1.”

Suddenly, this Phillies team that came into the NLCS looking unbeatable, with its three aces and lineup full of All-Stars, is showing fallibility. They’ve lost games with Halladay and Hamels, their rock and their best starter since the All-Star break. And the offensive inconsistency that often plagued them during the regular season crept up again, Cain baffling them with a four-pitch array that he commanded like a laser pointer.

Particularly effective was the changeup he used less than 14 percent of the time during the regular season. One of every four pitches Cain threw against the Phillies was a changeup, his antidote to the surfeit of left-handed hitters he faced. Once he lulled them with the off-speed pitch that darted away from them, he’d return to the fastball, gassing a high one past Raul Ibanez(notes) in the fourth inning to nullify a first-and-second threat, one of two Cain faced.

“Cain was too good,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “He didn’t give us any runs. When we don’t score runs, I’m always concerned. We came into this series, and everybody billed it as a pitching series, and that’s what it has been so far.”

That’s exactly the opposite of what the Phillies wanted. They preferred ’27 Yankees or Loyola Marymount hoops or Fun ‘N’ Gun. They wanted fireworks, homers and chaos because the Phillies have the offensive firepower to win sloppy games, and the Giants continue to squeeze by with whatever meager contributions their offense happens to give.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy has plenty of reasons to feel confident about his starting pitchers.
(Getty Images)

For 14 consecutive games, the Giants have scored fewer than five runs. Buster Posey(notes), their best hitter, is 1 for 11 in the series. Nearly all of San Francisco’s offense has come from journeyman Cody Ross(notes). Though such inadequacy is generally mutually exclusive with postseason success, the Giants’ pitching more than compensates.

It left the Phillies stunned and silent. Players didn’t want to talk about getting shut out. Chase Utley(notes) and Jayson Werth(notes) stared at video on laptops. Jimmy Rollins(notes) ogled his BlackBerry. Cain silenced them good.

“There’s not time to analyze the situation,” center fielder Shane Victorino(notes) said. “I’m not going to sit back and reflect. We’ll gather ourselves and play well tomorrow.”

They’d better. While they would come back in Games 5, 6 and 7 with Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, that doesn’t scare the Giants anymore, and that’s saying something for a team that overhauled its lineup drastically for Game 3 to defibrillate its offense.

Bumgarner – Ringo – goes for the Giants in Game 4, and whereas the first three games were tossups, the advantage leans to San Francisco on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. Blanton last pitched Oct. 3, and it was a one-inning maintenance session. It will have been 20 days since his last start.

“We knew, and still feel like, this is going to be a close matchup,” Cain said, and it certainly can, Game 4 perhaps the series’ swing point. Still, it’s impossible to ignore what the Giants and Cain did Tuesday. He’s always been an aesthetic pitcher, his tight, compact motion punctuated by an explosion toward the plate. Every kid should throw a ball like Matt Cain, and yet the renown never accompanied such a truth.

And here it was, in the seventh inning, runners again on first and second with two outs, the threat palpable. Bochy jogged to the mound. He asked Cain how he felt. Cain said good – like he was going to say anything else – and that satisfied Bochy. Victorino fought Cain to a full count before grounding his 119th pitch to the second baseman.

Cain strolled off the field, 34 easy steps, to a dugout of admirers. He had pluck-pluck-plucked like always. In this game, the biggest of his life, the rhythm was just right.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Oct 20, 2010