Are home runs a 'thing' again for Matt Cain?

Are home runs a 'thing' again for Matt Cain?
April 6, 2014, 10:00 pm
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He looked as sharp as I’ve seen him. His direction was really good and his ball had good life on it. Unfortunately it was just a couple mistakes and they squared them up.
Buster Posey on Matt Cain

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LOS ANGELES – The question was short and direct, and Matt Cain didn’t wait to hear the end of it.

“Who cares?” said Cain, interrupting a reporter who referenced his home run-ruined first half last season on a night the Dodgers parked three off him in a 6-2 victory Sunday.

“Yeah. I don’t care. Sure.”

[INSTANT REPLAY: Dodgers power past Giants to avoid sweep]

It’s clarion clear. When you attempt to introduce this certain idea to Cain, he will retract his hand and run from the cocktail party. It’s the last thing the Giants’ stalwart right-hander needed to ponder after losing grip on the balloon string while giving up two home runs to Matt Kemp, one to Hanley Ramirez and coming within a Farmer John footlong of another on Andre Ethier’s sacrifice fly.

Last season, Cain so uncharacteristically gave up 13 home runs in his first nine starts. He allowed three homers in three of those outings. He spent the rest of the season trying to downsize his ERA and he did correct course – he didn’t have another three-homer start after May 16 -- but the damage had been done. The Giants were racing for pride.

Cain does not want to fall into that pattern again and the Giants, for all the giddiness over their 5-2 start on this season-opening road trip, cannot afford it. Along with their major league best 11 home runs, they have just two quality starts out of seven as they return home to AT&T Park, where the games take on a different tone and tenor. If the rotation is not firm enough to win 3-2 and 2-1 in the brisk air off McCovey Cove, it’s going to be hard to keep up with the Dodgers.

“They’re good,” Cain said. “You know they’ll be good. It’ll be tough every time we face them. Both teams I think will be able to swing the bat against each other.

“We’ve still got some stuff to clean up as a staff, but all in all, this is definitely how we wanted to start the first week of the season.”

Players are supposed to be optimistic. Scouts are supposed to be objective. And no fewer than three of them approached me with the same question after seeing Cain’s debut last week at Arizona: “What’s the matter with him?”

He was pitching backwards. He was throwing first-pitch curves. He pumped 93 mph as late as the fourth inning, but he pitched as if he didn’t have confidence in his fastball. That was a huge change for Cain, who spent years shaking off so he could throw heater after heater.

I asked Cain about that a few days ago and he said he was just sticking to the game plan and trying to throw what he thought would get those Diamondbacks hitters out. At lively Chase Field, he came out of his delivery a bunch of times and he had more non-competitive misses than I can ever remember seeing in one of his starts. But he also kept the ball in the park. 

This time, in his second start at Dodger Stadium, the reverse was true. His fastball crackled with life. In the first inning, he threw three first-pitch strikes – all heaters – and he was operating from ahead in the count. It was more brush strokes than paint splatters.

“He looked as sharp as I’ve seen him," catcher Buster Posey said. "His direction was really good and his ball had good life on it. Unfortunately it was just a couple mistakes and they squared them up.”

The ball was carrying better than usual. And those three homers slipped over the fence.

I asked Bruce Bochy: Could this become a “thing” with Cain, after what happened last season?

“Well, that’s a good point and I hope it doesn’t,” Bochy said. “I like the way he attacked the zone. He pitched very efficiently. He didn’t get away with some mistakes, and sure, it (also) happened in the early part of last season.

“But I don’t want that sitting in his head. If he goes out with that stuff, he’ll be just fine. You guys ask is this going to be a pattern? I know it won’t, but I don’t want him thinking about it.”

Whether it’s a thing or not, Cain absolutely must have confidence in his fastball. He cannot pitch from his heels. To that point, he said the right things Sunday.

“I don’t want to nibble and I don’t want to go away from the strike zone,” Cain said. “I want to attack these guys and obviously, yeah, you want to keep it in the park. But I’m a guy who will elevate the ball and when you elevate to certain guys in certain areas, it’s got the potential to go out.

“You’ve got to make adjustments and throw to the corners, keep the ball out of the middle.”

Cain might have given some insight to his inner thoughts in the sixth, when he cleanly caught Kemp’s one-hopper – the first time he retired him after those two homers – and lollipopped a throw to first base before Brandon Belt was near the bag. The slo-pitch softball arrived when Belt did, and Cain walked off the mound.

It was a good result. But his body language told the story. It was too little, too late.

For this night, anyway.

The Giants return home and Cain, with any luck, has 32 more starts this season. So maybe, recent past aside, it’s unwise to make a big deal over those three home runs at Dodger Stadium.

It only matters whether it’s a big deal to one person. And he doesn’t care to hear the question.

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