SAN FRANCISCO – No matter how outsized the moment, no matter how loud the ovation, Matt Cain adhered to a personal code when he walked off the mound.
If he left a runner on base, he would not tip his cap to the crowd. He would not acknowledge the cheers. It was superstition, sure. But it was more than that. He would not accept praise for a job well done when he relied on a teammate to jog from the bullpen to finish it.
Even if it was Game 2 of the World Series and he handed over the baseball with a shutout in the eighth inning.
“Just doesn’t seem right,” he said that night in 2010, after his performance helped the Giants to a commanding lead over the Texas Rangers on their way to a championship that fulfilled generations of hope and longing.
Cain was the first pillar the Giants set into place on their way to that championship. He did not allow an earned run in three starts that postseason. When the Giants repeated in 2012, he was the starting pitcher in all three series-clinching victories. Even during that first parade ride, at just 26 years old, he was the longest tenured player on the roster — a distinction he will cede on Saturday after he makes his final major league start, against the San Diego Padres.
You can bet he’ll tip his cap this time. This time, it won’t matter if there are runners on base. His work day will be over. It will be a job well done.
“If he was ever nervous, you couldn’t tell,” said Buster Posey, who didn’t wait for Manager Bruce Bochy’s instructions to declare that he’ll catch Cain on Saturday.
“He took the mound with the same intensity and focus. That gave a lot of guys on the staff a sense of comfort and confidence, and it transcended to the rest of the team as well.”
There was a time, though, when Cain admitted to feeling a surge of nervous energy. It came prior to the start he called his most important as a Giant, and the one he considered a career highlight.
It wasn’t the perfect game in 2012, although that came with its own adrenal shock in the final moments. It wasn’t any of those starts in the 2010 postseason, when the Giants had so little playoff experience on the roster yet achieved what Willie Mays and Barry Bonds never could. It wasn’t the pride in pitching through bone chips in his elbow that he had since he was 19, or bone spurs in his ankle that he endured for two seasons.
It was his start in the 2012 NL Division Series, when the Giants needed to win three consecutive games at Cincinnati to advance, and after they ran the gauntlet twice, Cain took the ball for a decisive Game 5.
“I feel like the last game in Cincinnati stands out the most because I’d never been in that moment, never been in that situation,” Cain said. “It was win or go home.”
Cain was familiar only with the buildup to a start like that. He experienced it in the 2010 NLCS at Philadelphia, when he girded himself to start a decisive Game 7. The Giants didn’t need him. Bochy drew a line in the sand, used his other three starting pitchers in Game 6, and the team clinched the pennant in an extreme upset.
“So having that feeling in ‘10, and then us winning, was tremendous,” Cain said. “But having that same feeling of, `Hey, this could come down to a winner-take-all in Cincinnati, and then to end up actually living that moment, it stands out a lot. I mean, all the starts are extremely special but I remember that one a ton because it was just extremely nerve racking.
“It’s, `All right, am I going to pitch in two days? … All right, am I going to pitch in one more day? … Awww crap! I’m pitching.’ That start, I felt so much emotion in that game, so much excitement, stress, everything, that I was able to carry that over to the games in St. Louis (another Game 7 elimination win in the NLCS) and the game in Detroit (to clinch a four-game sweep over the Tigers). That’s probably why I would pick that one out of all of them.”
Cain did not throw a quality start in that game at Cincinnati. He gave up three runs and was pulled before he could finish the sixth. But he did match zeroes with the Reds’ Mat Latos until the Giants scored six runs in the fifth, including Posey’s grand slam that remains one of the biggest hits in franchise playoff history.
“I was sitting in the dugout just trying to get out of the sun,” Cain said after that game. “All I saw is he made a good swing. His reaction told me the rest.”
That afternoon in Cincinnati will be remembered for Posey’s slam and Sergio Romo’s daring confrontation with Jay Bruce in the ninth. You almost forget that Cain had a part in it, too.
“Kind of fitting, right?” said Giants special assistant Cody Ross, who was MVP of the 2010 NLCS. “That’s Cainer, always under the radar. When you think of 2010, you think of Timmy Lincecum. When you think of 2014, you think of Madison Bumgarner. In ’12, you had (Ryan) Vogelsong, and Barry Zito was such an amazing comeback story.
“But every time Cainer stepped on the mound, I knew we had a really, really good chance to win. He had that sort of calmness about him. You got past Timmy, but we knew when Matt took the mound, we felt just as confident. He always came up with the big win when we needed it.”
Ross relishes in retelling the story of his first day with the Giants in 2010 after they picked him off waivers:
“I’m walking through the clubhouse, everybody says, `Hey, welcome, we’re glad you’re here.’ You know, handshakes, slaps on the back, all that. And I get to Cain, and I’d hit a home run off him a few weeks earlier, and he looks at me, and he’s dead serious, and he’s like, `Why’d you have to flip your bat so far?’”
Cain’s competitiveness in those years was legendary. His Game 2 victory over the Rangers helped the Giants gain a huge edge in the 2010 World Series. He’d already done the same thing in Game 3 of the NLCS that season while outpitching former World Series MVP Cole Hamels and keeping the Phillies from getting an upper hand they likely would not have relinquished.
Even when opponents would try to give away an out, Cain did not believe in making it easy. When Hamels tried to sacrifice in that Game 3, Cain threw high and tight to back him off the plate. Then he struck him out.
“Sometimes it might not seem he had fire or intensity on the mound,” Posey said. “But I promise you, he had the same if not more than most people.”
When Cain blanked the Cardinals in Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS, and pitched with a 7-0 lead in the sixth inning, he did not leave the mound before exacting a bit of revenge. He plunked Matt Holliday with a fastball in retaliation for the slide that took out Marco Scutaro earlier in the series.
Then Cain handed over the baseball and walked off the mound. The crowd at AT&T Park thundered. He did not tip his hat. Runner on base, you know.
Now with one start remaining and one bit of unfinished business, perhaps Cain will feel one last bout of nerves – not that you’d be able to tell.
He once was asked how he would sleep the night before his first career World Series start. His immediate answer was like one of his inside fastballs. All focus, no nonsense.
“Close your eyes.”
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