SAN FRANCISCO – Matt Cain was asked about the scorched ball that struck him on the hip. He nodded like he was describing an enjoyable movie or a satisfying lunch.
“Oh, a good one,” he said. “Should just be a good bruise.”
That’s what his April will end up being, too. A good bruise on his ERA. But no lasting damage, no structural issues, nothing that will keep him from pulling his cap low, taking the mound and doing the same thing he’s done every five days for going on eight years now.
The Giants don’t have a complete game yet in 2013. They’d only received an eight-inning start once in their first 35 games. Their bullpen workload needle has ventured into the red a few times as a result. Entering Friday’s game, they were short one man (Santiago Casilla) and two others pitched two innings apiece the previous night.
They needed Cain to do more than avoid the big-inning pitfall or try to match zeroes with Tim Hudson, a pitcher they hadn’t defeated since Cain was a 21-year-old rookie.
They needed stability. They needed Cain to punch the clock.
So when Brian McCann hit that comebacker in the second inning that caught Cain flush in the hip, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was concerned for his opening-day starter of course. But he was concerned at how he’d possibly piece together the rest of the night.
“There was a lot of game left,” Bochy said. “He showed how tough he is. I’m sure it’s going to be sore in that area. We checked on him during the game, if it was tightening up, and he was fine.”
Not only did Cain brush off the hard contact, but he didn’t even seem to feel it until after he sprinted to collect the ball, lunged after it, angled an off-balance throw around the runner and recorded the out.
Only then did he rise, put his hands on his knees and grit his teeth.
“The reaction, you don’t really bother with it,” he said. “Then it’s after the play’s concluded (that you feel it). … I can’t lie about that one.”
Cain had to be impervious as he entered May. He was 0-2 with a 6.49 ERA in April. He’d given up nine home runs over a span of just four starts. You can’t just rub dirt on that and make it go away.
But you can ignore it, not let it challenge your inner confidence, and go out and be a staff leader. That’s what Cain has done in his two starts in May. And although he might have gotten away with a few mistakes in his previous outing against the Dodgers, there was no doubting the firmness of his stuff this time. Eight innings, three hits allowed -- and that included an infield single and a ball off an outfielder's glove.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Giants 8, Braves 2]
Cain even contributed with the bat to spoil the Braves’ strategy in the fourth inning, when they intentionally walked No.8 hitter Brandon Crawford to set up a double play. Cain gave them an RBI single instead, and then Marco Scutaro – another veteran who understands the meaning of playing in pain – rapped a two-run single for his second hit of the inning.
Scutaro began and ended the rally against Hudson, his former A’s teammate from almost a decade ago.
“It’s not, like, really fun, facing that guy,” Scutaro said. “Today, I guess, it was fun.”
What’s been the difference for Scutaro as he’s collected 19 hits over his 10-game streak?
“My back got better,” he said, dryly. “I’m able to use it.”
Said Cain: “Scutaro’s been doing a great job. He’s feeling better and we all see that. He’s got a lot of confidence out there.”
And what about Cain? What has the difference been as he’s found a way to keep the ball out of the middle of the plate?
“Well, we said he was healthy,” said Bochy, when told that Cain was still throwing 92 mph on his 113th pitch in the eighth. “In (April), he threw a couple really good games. It was one inning that would get him. He is in a good place now with his delivery. He’s healthy. He showed it tonight.”
Cain also credited his catchers, Buster Posey and Guillermo Quiroz, with keeping him in a good frame of mind.
“Not so literal,” Cain said. “More like just, `we can get this guy with this pitch.’ Just not being tentative with what sign they’re putting down. Maybe you’re questioning what to throw and they stick a number down. You think, `He’s got a lot of faith in it, so I should, too.’”
Cain did allow one home run, to Brian McCann in the fifth. But the Braves entered with the most home runs in the major leagues. And the only other extra-base hit they managed off Cain was a Justin Upton double that center fielder Angel Pagan should’ve caught near the wall.
Scutaro knows what it’s like to play behind a bulldog. He played behind Hudson in Oakland. He gets the same sense behind Cain now.
“Everybody knows what a competitor he is, too,” Scutaro said.
As exciting as all the Giants' late-inning home runs and comebacks have been in April, it's a game like this -- beating a quality opponent at home behind a well pitched game -- that can send them to another division title. So yes, this was a good one, all right.