SAN FRANCISCO – If Matt Cain is going to address a horseshoe of reporters in a hushed clubhouse following a loss, this is the best kind of comment that the Giants could to hear:
“If I don’t give up the one run, we could still be playing right now.”
The Giants lost 1-0 on Saturday and it was a classic Caining to be sure. Their longest tenured player and rotation pillar yielded just Troy Tulowitzki’s sacrifice fly while holding the Colorado Rockies to four hits in seven innings.
This was the sixth time in his career that Cain gave up one run and lost. It was the fourth 1-0 loss of his career. The previous one came in May, 2010, to Gio Gonzalez at Oakland.
Cain responded the same way he always has in these run-starved starts, whether shaded by a Greg Maddux, a Jake Peavy or, as it happened Saturday afternoon, six innings of Colorado relief after Brett Anderson injured the finger on his pitching hand.
Cain blamed himself. He took responsibility for the leadoff walk to Charlie Blackmon, even though the guy was leading the NL with a .486 average. He blamed himself for not paying attention to the runners on a double steal, even though he was spinning plates with Troy Tulowitzki in the batter’s box. Cain didn’t even point out that Brandon Barnes’ single would’ve been a double-play grounder if Blackmon hadn’t taken off with the pitch, creating a hole when Joaquin Arias moved to cover second base.
Cain might have blamed himself for not hitting a grand slam with the bases empty, if you let him go on long enough.
This is what Cain always does after starts like this. He takes his sword and falls on it. And that’s a lot better than letting the opposing hitters do it for you.
Cain’s first two starts featured enough blood on steel to cause concern. As if he had no faith in his fastball, he pitched backwards at Arizona. Then he jerked his head backwards at Dodger Stadium while allowing three home runs.
This loomed as a major issue. The Giants already had two scattershot starters in Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong. They had just three quality starts in their first 11 games. They absolutely could not afford for Cain to become a fifth-day enigma, too.
That’s why this Caining had very little of the usual sting.
Cain didn’t just get results against the Rockies. His fastball was 92-93 and he even hit 94. More importantly, it had that late carry that is so important. When he threw up and away, fastballs stayed up and away.
“You don’t want the ball that runs back over the plate,” Cain said. “Those are the ones you never get back, usually.”
Cain walked three, but two of the passes were strategic ones to No.8 hitter D.J. LeMahieu with two outs. Although he threw 116 pitches in seven innings, his stuff was far crisper than the first two outings, or his final handful of tuneups in the spring.
And the biggest thing: Those three home runs in L.A. didn’t scare Cain off his fastball. He threw it with confidence again -- even to hitters like Carlos Gonzalez with runners in scoring position.
“Just not throwing strikes in my first game was not typical,” he said. “I didn’t want to get in the habit of getting in nasty counts. I’m going to be aggressive, and the fastball has always been a good pitch for me. … A well executed fastball in a good location is a hard pitch to hit.”
It only took a few tosses in the bullpen for catcher Hector Sanchez recognized Cain’s fastball was back.
“Right away you say, 'He’s good today,’” Sanchez said. “It’s a really good feeling because he’s one of the biggest guys in the rotation and he needed that outing to give him some confidence back.”
Sanchez contributed to Cain’s effectiveness, too. Instead of stabbing at pitches, as he did in the past, Sanchez has worked with coaches to receive them out in front. Call it “framing pitches” or “stealing strikes.” Sanchez is getting better at the subtle art of snapping his glove back to the edge of the zone, as if pulled there by a magnetic force. He might have gotten a strike or two for Sergio Romo in Friday night’s victory, too.
“He’s done a great job of taking coaching to heart,” Cain said. “He’ll be really big for us because Buster (Posey) needs his days off.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy is a big believer in the exponential recuperative power of getting his cleanup-hitting catcher a 48-hour break from behind the plate when 24 otherwise would do. That’s why after Posey caught all of Thursday’s four-hour, 10 minute game, Bochy combined a day off Friday with a day at first base on Saturday.
As a result, Brandon Belt rested for the first time this season and Hunter Pence was back in the No.2 spot against a lefty starter. And the Giants saw what happens to their offense when they stall at the top. Angel Pagan, who had hit safely in all 10 of his games this season, went 0 for 4. Pence (.156 entering the game) and Pablo Sandoval (.143) each collected one of the Giants’ three hits but otherwise weren’t able to set the table.
Sandoval struck out to strand the bases loaded in the eighth. It was the first time the Giants have been shut out this season. And, of course, it came on a sunny afternoon when Cain only gave up one.
Really now, Matt. Is it a mistake to overlook those baserunners when a hitter like Tulowitzki is at the plate?
“Yeah, it is,” Cain said. “I’ve been around long enough to understand what guys are trying to do.”
Cue the seppuku.