SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Matt Cain pitched a perfect game, he started for the NL All-Star team, he took the mound in all three of the Giants’ playoff-clinching victories on the way to another World Series spray-a-thon and he threw the most innings, all told, by a San Francisco pitcher in a season since Bob Knepper and Vida Blue in 1978.
That 16-5 record and career-low 2.79 ERA looked pretty good, too.
But when fellow right-hander Ryan Vogelsong tries to find the essence of Cain’s dream season, he latches onto something else:
An Aug. 1 afternoon against the New York Mets when Cain couldn’t have been sloppier.
Five innings and 95 pitches. Deep counts. A Carmageddon of traffic on the basepaths. A busy bullpen in the third inning. A leadoff home run surrendered to a hitter, Ruben Tejada, who hadn’t gone deep in 629 at-bats.
“And when he walked off the mound, he’d only given up two runs,” Vogelsong said. “That’s what I remember. It wasn’t pretty, but you’d better believe we were in that game. Matt gave us a chance.
“He always gives us a chance.”
The Giants lost 2-1 that day – one of just five defeats on Cain’s ledger during the season. It came at the tail end of his one sustained funk last summer, when he struggled in July and gave up eight homers over a span of six starts.
But when the Giants needed Cain the most in August and beyond, he found a way. Not only did he exceed 200 innings for the sixth consecutive season, but counting the 30 he tossed in the playoffs, his 249 1/3 innings were the most by a Giant since butterfly collars were all the rage.
It takes a lot for Buster Posey to make a “gee whiz” face. That stat did the trick.
“Wow,” Posey said. “That’s really cool. I did not know that.”
Innings are a form of respect. A manager doesn’t leave you on the mound if he doesn’t have confidence in you – and that goes double for the days when every pitch is a battle.
Even in a dream season, Cain had those days.
“What I’ve learned to appreciate most about him is that regardless of whether he’s got his best stuff or his worst stuff, you always feel you have a chance,” Posey sad. “The great thing about Matt is that when he’s off, the casual observer probably won’t notice. He’s the same guy regardless. He’ll make adjustments. He’ll find a way to stay out there.
“That goes beyond sheer ability or skill. That’s more of a willpower thing. It’s an intangible that’s tough to be taught. That’s when he really becomes that competitor and battler.”
That, and when the big stage arrives. It was evident that Cain didn’t have his best stuff in the postseason, and certainly not the same steam as in 2010 when he didn't give up an earned run in three playoff starts.
But the moment that stands out to Posey was in the Game 4 clincher at Detroit, when Delmon Young’s solo home run tied it in the sixth inning. The shot awoke the chilled crowd at Comerica Park.
Cain held back the waves. He retired the next hitter, and when manager Bruce Bochy made the surprising decision to keep the 28-year-old right-hander out there for the seventh, the Tigers were retired in order.
“He just keeps coming at you,” Posey said. “He just keeps making pitches.”
He’s made a lot of them. Over the past seven seasons, Cain’s 228 starts are the fourth most among major league pitchers (Dan Haren, Bronson Arroyo, Justin Verlander). His 23,955 pitches thrown also ranks fourth (behind Verlander, Haren and CC Sabathia).
There was a time earlier in his career when Cain allowed himself to get a bit doughy, but not in recent years. Even with the security of a $112 million contract he signed last year, he reported to camp this spring looking as fit as ever.
“The biggest thing is doing the little things,” Cain said. “Doing your rotator cuff exercises, your (scapula) exercises, all the maintenance. It’s easy to say, `I don’t feel like doing that today.’ But that has to be your focus. I’d rather make sure I get my arm stuff done than my legs or upper body. I really feel it’s important to maintain what you have.”
How does Cain plan to maintain? Does he approach the spring with the mindset to throw a few wrinkles into his repertoire, or to fine tune what he already has?
“You try to fine tune and something might come along where you get a feel for a pitch maybe you didn’t before,” he said. “For me, I first look at, `Let’s fine tune what I have, and try to minimize mistakes as much as possible.’”
There can’t be many mistakes in a perfect game, and Cain doesn’t expect he’ll ever stop hearing about that June 13 night against Houston.
“It comes up and, yeah, you might be on your way to do something else, but you enjoy hearing it,” he said. “It’s neat to hear people tell you where they were sitting. But I’m starting to wonder, because it seems like 200,000 people are telling me they were there. How many tickets were actually sold, again?”
Cain is the first to point out he had plenty of help in the perfect game, including a diving catch from Gregor Blanco. The outfielder made a similar highlight catch in that rough start against the Mets, too.
Sure, Cain’s season was sprinkled with good fortune. But it takes more than that to put together perhaps the most accomplished season by a pitcher in Giants history.
“It’s one of those years people will look back on and appreciate the further we get away from it,” Posey said. “Don’t you think?”