SAN FRANCISCO – Matt Cain’s bruised forearm hurt in more ways than one. Not only did it knock him to the disabled list for the first time in his career, but it deprived him one last chance to start against the Colorado Rockies.
And, specifically, Todd Helton.
The Rockies’ 40-year-old first baseman is expected to retire after the season and so barring a change of heart, he’s playing his last series in San Francisco. Although Cain is back and healthy again, as it happens, his day to pitch won’t fall during these three games.
But Cain plans to lean against the rail and watch each of Helton’s at-bats, and appreciate them.
[REWIND: BOX SCORE -- Rockies 2, Giants 1]
“For sure,” said Cain, who had Giants clubhouse manager Mike Murphy get Helton to autograph a Rockies home jersey for him two weeks ago at Coors Field.
“He’s one of a small handful of guys I’ve been able to face that you can say for sure, `That guy’s going to the Hall of Fame.’ I mean, we’ll see what happens. But I’ve always looked at him that way, and he’s had a tremendous career.
“You don’t’ really look forward to facing him because you know he’ll give you a tough battle.”
It was a battle from the start. Nobody who witnessed Cain’s major league debut, on Aug. 29, 2005 at AT&T Park, can forget the 14-pitch repartee that Helton gave him in the fifth inning.
Helton was 32, already a five-time All-Star, and was coming to the end of a season in which he led the NL with a .445 on-base percentage. Cain was a headstrong thrower, still six weeks shy of his 21st birthday, pushed up from the minors for a team having its first losing season in nine years. He was the youngest Giant to start a game in 21 years.
[RELATED: Todd Helton career stats]
Helton already had drawn an eight-pitch walk in the fourth inning. Their battle in the fifth was even more protracted.
It included nine consecutive foul balls, with Cain saying afterward, “It’s almost explainable how he hit a couple of those pitches. He just missed the one at the end.”
The last one was a fastball that Helton hit well, but Moises Alou caught it at the warning track in left field.
With all those spent bullets, Cain was through after five innings. He departed with the Giants trailing 2-1. That was the final score – a loss for Cain, the first of many hard-luck “cainings” he would take in those early years.
But all anyone wanted to talk about was that confrontation with Helton, and how the 20-year-old kid from Germantown, Tenn., refused to back down.
“Matt just needs to realize … Todd’s pretty good,” said Mike Matheny, the Giants’ catcher, after that game. “He’s done that to a lot of pitchers. But in that situation, I think everybody in the stands, on the field and in the dugout had a lot of respect for how he kept coming after him.”
Almost a decade later, Cain has faced hundreds upon hundreds of big league hitters. He’s only faced two (Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier) more times than Helton. And the Rockies’ retiring slugger is just a .200 hitter with a .310 on-base percentage in 71 plate appearances against him.
[RELATED: Matt Cain career stats]
Helton has faced just three pitchers (Livan Hernandez, Brandon Webb and Adam Eaton) more often than Cain.
They have history, and mutual admiration.
“He makes it look easy,” Cain said. “I can’t even count how many times I’ve thrown him a pitch and it was like he knew it was coming. That’s the hardest thing about facing him. It seems like he knows exactly what you’re thinking. You might fool him, but he has that knack of making you guess in your own mind if you’re throwing the right pitch.”
Cain puts Helton in a small class with Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado of hitters who gave him a special challenge in that regard.
Although they’ve been face to face so many times, Helton and Cain haven’t spoken much off the field. Just a few casual conversations on the rare times Cain has reached first base, and even then, “maybe he’s said a few extra words to me because I’m from Tennessee.”
Helton was Peyton Manning’s backup quarterback at the University of Tennessee, in case you didn’t know.
The Helton jersey is hanging in Cain’s locker, and he’ll put it in a room he’s decorating in his home in Scottsdale. He has a few other jerseys, such as Jon Lester and Josh Beckett (with Boston, not the Dodgers). He hopes to add Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera to his collection when the Giants go to Yankee Stadium on the next trip.
“Just guys who might be retiring or who I’ve enjoyed playing against,” he said.
Cain can look back and say he enjoyed the heck out of facing Helton. But back when he was a few weeks shy of legal drinking age, he had a different opinion.
“You’re thinking, `Oh great, is every lefty hitter going to be like this?’” Cain said, smiling. “If they are, I’m in for a really tough career.”