MLB: Giants’ Cain wily before his time
By Andrew Baggarly
San Jose Mercury News
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Talk to his teammates or coaches and you’ll hear Matt Cain described as an old soul.
Except he’s still a young gun, too.
The Giants’ 25-year-old right-hander is entering his physical prime, but he’s also capable of some cagey tricks. Witness the first-pitch curveball he threw at the outset of his Cactus League debut Thursday against the Colorado Rockies.
“Never did that before,” he said, grinning. “Always wanted to.”
Wily and still wicked. That’s a rare station in a pitcher’s life. By the time most veterans figure out what it takes to outsmart hitters, their fastball has giddy-upped into the sunset.
Cain still brings heat. While Tim Lincecum was out front winning Cy Young Awards and getting well deserved magazine covers, Cain quietly was developing into a solid No. 1 in his own right. His 2.89 ERA was seventh in the NL last season and he would’ve been listed on plenty of Cy Young ballots if they went further than three deep. (Beginning this year, they will.)
Cain learned how to add and subtract off his fastball — simple arithmetic that often eludes pitchers until they’re subtracting by default.
“I don’t just want to be that guy who throws hard,” Cain said. “I want to mix, match, take something off, move the ball around. People forget Greg Maddux came up throwing hard.”
Cain took notes while watching a 40-something Maddux disarm the Giants over the years. For example, Cain used to pump his hardest fastballs when an opposing pitcher would square to bunt. It was considered an admirable trait: He was competitive and didn’t want to give anything away. He’d jam them or at least make them uncomfortable.
But when he’d bunt against Maddux, he couldn’t believe how easy the future Hall of Fame pitcher made it. He’d lob in two-seamers. And Cain soon understood why.
“You realize he’s doing that so he can get closer to you,” Cain said. “He’s jumping off the mound trying to make a play (on the lead runner). He’s a super thinker out there.”
So that first curveball of the spring wasn’t just a yakker for yuks. Cain wanted to plant it in the mind of Rockies hitters, whom he’ll face several times this season.
There is another NL West team on Cain’s mind, too. It might come as a shock to everyone else, but Cain is aware that he’s never beaten the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers. He is 0-7 against them in 13 career starts.
“Really?” Dodgers first baseman James Loney said. “I can’t think of a time when he had control problems against us. It always seems like a battle against him. His stuff is really tight. He keeps the same arm speed on his pitches. Yeah, I guess that’s kind of crazy.”
Mostly, the Giants’ notoriously poor run support is to blame. Cain’s 4.13 ERA against the Dodgers isn’t too far removed from his 3.53 overall mark. He’s pitched five quality outings. He’s lost by 2-0 and 2-1 scores. In 2008, Cain tossed six shutout innings but reliever Sergio Romo got the decision in a 1-0 victory.
Still, Cain has his thorns. Rafael Furcal is a .360 hitter against him. Matt Kemp owns a .320 average. Casey Blake has two homers in 18 at-bats. And Andre Ethier slays him. He has a .535 average in 33 at-bats.
“He’s had a lot of hard outs against me, too,” Cain said. “He hits mistakes really well. And maybe the more you try to get somebody out, the worse it is. But I’m not going to let that frustrate me or change my game plan.”
Ethier faced Cain in the minor leagues and speculated that familiarity might have helped.
“I can’t point the finger at one thing,” Ethier said. “You might see the ball out of a certain guy’s hand. With him, I really don’t know. I just know he’ll come right after you and challenge you. You’ve got to be ready. He’ll definitely pitch you in and he does it aggressively.”
Count on Cain to have a different angle on Ethier this year. That’s the trouble with those wily ol’ pitchers. You never know what they’ll throw.
“If you stay by the book, it’s not always going to work,” Cain said. “You’ve got to venture off a little bit. But you can’t get too reckless, either.”
The key is having the wisdom to know the difference.