By Michelle Dingley
When you think San Francisco Giants, you think pitching. And when most people think Giants pitching, they think Tim Lincecum. But fresh off his big contract extension, and with Lincecum coming off some weak starts, Matt Cain is in the limelight where he belongs.
As the longest tenured Giant, Matt Cain joined the team in 2005 and played his first full year in 2006. Lincecum became a Giant in 2007, and somehow eclipsed Cain despite their comparable numbers. Matt has been a victim of poor run support throughout his entire SF career. Sadly, this has led to a losing record (70-73) despite a career 1.18 WHIP and .225 opponents’ average. Timmy owns a 69-43 record with a 1.20 WHIP and the same .225 opponents’ average. Timmy is known as “The Freak” for his unconventional delivery, which generates more power than his slight frame would suggest. He fits in well in San Francisco, a city which embraces the team’s big and offbeat personalities, from The Beard and Kung Fu Panda to Aubrey Huff with his rally thong. Matt Cain, on the other hand, is – well – a normal guy with no silly nickname or animal counterpart. He just takes the mound and dominates, exactly like you want a starter to do. This is not to say that he gets no respect, that he is unappreciated. When Matt takes the hill, the stands of AT&T are speckled with signs reading “Yes We Cain” and “You Cain Do It.” He is a two-time All-Star, both well deserved. Matt will always be a postseason hero for his 21 1/3 innings without an earned run on our way to our 2010 World Championship. He is at least as good as Timmy, though Cain appears to be more consistent. Nonetheless, Matt seemed destined to remain in The Freak’s shadow.
During the offseason, the Giants front office gave Matt the respect he deserves, and they did it with money. With Matt set to enter free agency at the end of this season, I was worried that he would want to test the waters, seeing if a team that could score runs for him would offer him decent money. I wondered if the organization would be willing to pay Cain what he deserved and had earned throughout his stellar career, or if they would save that money for Timmy. Shortly before opening day, Cain signed a five-year extension worth $112.5 million, with a club option for 2018. This is the largest guaranteed contract ever awarded a right-handed pitcher. It also includes a full no-trade clause. This is great news, proof that the Giants want to keep their homegrown talent for themselves. They value Cain in addition to Lincecum, who had signed a short-term contract not long beforehand. (Bumgarner also just signed a five-year contract worth $35 million, with $12 million in options for 2018 and 2019.) Cain’s big, long-term contract shows that the franchise realizes that it will take more than just Lincecum to secure our pitching prowess (and postseason viability) for years to come. It makes me happy that Matt wants to stay here. He is more interested in staying with the franchise he came up with and the city that loves him than getting credited with wins, a stat that many now see as overvalued.
Coming off the heels of this new contract, Matt Cain took the mound for the Giants home opener on April 13. He wanted to make up for his first start of the season, a loss in which he gave up a six-run lead. The San Francisco air did him some good, and Cain was masterful. He had a perfect game into the 6th, when he gave up a single to Pirates starter James McDonald. That would be the only baserunner for the Bucs and Cain’s one blemish on a complete game one-hitter. The feat was wonderful, but truly not that surprising considering Cain’s talent.
In his next start, April 18, Cain faced the Phillies’ Cliff Lee in a pitcher’s duel for the ages. Both pitchers looked spectacular, hitting their locations, pounding the strike zone, and getting quick outs. Cain was nearly as good as his previous start, throwing a 9-inning shutout, giving up 2 hits with 1 walk and 4 strikeouts with only 91 pitches. He could have kept pitching, but Bochy pulled him in the bottom of the 9th in favor of a pinch hitter. Similarly, Lee delivered 10 scoreless innings before being replaced by a pinch hitter. He would finish the game yielding 7 hits with no walks and 7 strikeouts, using 102 pitches. I’ve seen some very well-pitched games (case in point, April 13 above), but this was probably the best pitched game I had ever seen because both pitchers brought their A+ game. The batters were stymied, fooled by good pitches. It was definitely a case of tremendous pitching, not bad hitting. It was a fast-paced game; nine full innings were finished before the two-hour mark. It was a shame that neither starter would factor into the decision.
The Giants had a few opportunities to score in regulation, but they were wasted, and the game remained scoreless until the bottom of the 11th. With one out, Belt singled. Pagan reached on a throwing error, with Belt moving to second. Cabrera singled over the leaping second baseman. Belt was running on contact and easily made it home ahead of Hunter Pence’s throw. The Giants beat the Phillies 1-0.
In his last two games, Cain has pitched 18 scoreless innings, allowing only 4 baserunners. Who knows how long he can keep this up, or how much better he can do. Is a no-hitter in his future? A Cy Young? Even if he falls to earth, a decent season for Matt Cain would be a remarkable season for the average pitcher. We’re getting closer to the point where, when you think Giants pitching, you’ll think Cain along with Lincecum. That’s the way it should be.