Pure Cain sugar gives Giants a lift

Tim Brown
Yahoo! SportsApril 3, 2011
Pure Cain sugar gives Giants a lift
Matt Cain didn't allow a run in the 2010 playoffs or in his first start of 2011

LOS ANGELES – It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday that couldn't decide between sunny or dreary, in a town whose summer baseball promises the same ambiguity, when the bleacher denizens of Dodger Stadium attempted to initiate the wave.

Five innings and most of a sixth had come and gone, and so had most of their hitters, as had any chance of sending the hated San Francisco Giants to a three-straight-loss, opening-weekend gloom.

So, they turned to one final bit of self-amusement, that burned-out vestige of three decades (at least) past, because it was either that or picking out a vulnerable Giants fan to chase into the parking lot. And that already had been done.

Following two Los Angeles Dodgers victories here, and with the locals yearning for something – anything – to rouse their sense of superiority, along came Matt Cain(notes).

And with the game practically over when the Giants had four runs by the fifth inning, everybody in blue spent the rest of the day looking for something interesting to do.

In a rotation that houses The Freak and The Bust and The Rookie and The Guy Who Threw the No-hitter, what's left is Cain, the thick-legged right-hander born in Alabama, raised in Tennessee, and developed in China Basin. He always had been good enough and talented enough, but he chased his reputed potential and run support issues (and a way to beat the Dodgers) for so long that it began to appear he always would be just good and no better, a fine way to make a living but still perhaps unfulfilling.

Then along came the 2010 Giants, and an October that bled into November, and in three starts Cain outpitched Tommy Hanson(notes), Cole Hamels(notes) and C.J. Wilson(notes). By the time they were rolling around on the infield in Arlington, Texas, Cain had gone 21 1/3 postseason innings without allowing an earned run.

Scouts said Cain had found himself, that his pitching and reasoning had come together finally, that at 26 years old he could rely on four pitches – fastball, slider, curveball and changeup – and knew how to use them.

"Four plus pitches," said one, using the scouts' vernacular, "which you never see."

Well, not unless you happened to be at Dodger Stadium five months later.

After two days in which the Giants committed more errors (five) than they scored runs (four) and batted a buck-94, and in which they wore the game of a team pressing to play like champions rather than simply doing what they do, Cain put an end to such silliness. He threw only 13 1/3 innings in spring training because of a sore elbow (and that coming off 244 2/3 innings last season), and he still plowed through six scoreless innings against the Dodgers, who put two runners in scoring position against Cain and eventually lost 10-0.

That's 27 1/3 innings and a 0.00 ERA from Oct. 8 through April 2, with a champagne shower and a parade in between.

"Really down the stretch, not just the postseason, but to get there was a calmness about him," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "You never know what is going to come out in the ballgame. But I saw him just becoming real quiet on the mound, so to speak."

Still, Righetti added with a wry smile, "He hasn't put it all together. Until you're dead, you can't answer that question."

Where he once was what is known as "a blower," or a guy with a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider and then whatever else showed up that day, Cain now pitches a blip above 90 until otherwise necessary. He got after Matt Kemp(notes), one of the few dangerous Dodgers hitters in a B-game lineup, with changeups and breaking balls. With two out in the fifth inning and two runners on base for the only time against him, Cain struck out pinch-hitter Rod Barajas(notes) with a power slider.

Presumably, that's about when word of the wave went through the bleachers.

"Earlier in his career he'd power his way through lineups," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "Then he developed and he carried it through the postseason.

"He's a tough kid, man."

Cain himself doesn't seem interested in dabbling in what happened when, in how it came to be that the curveball became a strike when he wanted it or when he could feel in his soul when it was time for a changeup, other than to credit the "hard-headed" game-calling of Buster Posey(notes) and Eli Whiteside(notes).

Their insistence, he said, convinced him, "We're going to make this work because we know it can."

It played out here, again, so that the Giants avoided becoming the first defending World Series champion to start 0-3 since the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals, when finally Cain sucked the enthusiasm out of the place, and now everybody can get on with the season, or whatever it is they do with their idle time.