OAKLAND – Mike Kickham had plenty of experienced counselors on retainer to offer a pat on the back.
Matt Cain didn’t win his first major league start, either. Nor did Tim Lincecum or Madison Bumgarner. Ryan Vogelsong made his big league debut as a 22-year-old in 2000. He won his first big league game three years later.
Yet those four pitchers have felt the chilled blast of World Series champagne running down their necks. Between them, they've won Cy Young Awards, made All-Star appearances, signed a $100 million contract and accepted big, shiny rings that rank especially high on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness.
It’s true. One night does not a career make. Especially when it’s your first.
“I came into it knowing to expect heightened emotions,” Kickham said. “It went better than I thought.”
Some parts, anyway.
No, you didn’t need night vision goggles to pick out the bad in Kickham’s abbreviated, 2 1/3-inning debut. He retired just seven of 15 batters, he walked in a run and he served up a two-run home run in the Giants’ 6-3 loss to the A’s. But you didn’t see a pitcher who looked completely overmatched, either.
“It was awesome, just to have the opportunity to put on the jersey and try to help the team win,” said the bespectacled left-hander, who spoke in calm, measured sentences at his locker. “It’s something I can learn from. I’m not down about it at all.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy liked what he saw, too – even though he had to get Kickham in the third inning after five consecutive A’s batters reached base.
“Mike showed really good stuff early,” Bochy said of Kickham, who hit 94 mph in the second inning -- the hardest fastball any Giants starter has thrown this season. “I’m sure he was amped up. He got behind some hitters and walks hurt him. He was a little shaky, sure, but I thought he had impressive stuff.
“Your first outing, that’s always one you try to put behind you. You’ll be jittery.”
Kickham’s second outing is an open proposition at the moment. Bochy hadn’t yet spoken to GM Brian Sabean about the need for a fresh arm after another night when the bullpen used most of its bullets.
The Giants need a fifth starter again Sunday at St. Louis. They could turn to Kickham, who grew up a “die hard Cardinals fan” and was a standout at Missouri State. Or they could decide to send him out for a reliever, then give Chad Gaudin the ball Sunday. Or they could go with someone altogether different.
They can’t just go back to a 13-man staff. Not with Angel Pagan’s hamstring still ailing. The disabled list is growing as a possibility for Pagan, but it’s clear the Giants offense has missed him these past three days. They don’t want to put him on the shelf for 15 days unless absolutely necessary.
So there are roster decisions to be made. Whatever they are, and wherever Kickham pitches next, he said he’d take the mound a bit wiser for the wear.
He learned he cannot fall behind 3-1 to a major league hitter – even a catcher with a .212 average. Derek Norris crushed an inside fastball for a two-run homer in the second inning, and Kickham kept his distance the rest of the night.
“The home run was a decent pitch but it’s in a hitter’s count and he jumped on it,” Kickham said. “Mistakes here are magnified. You don’t get away with what you do at Triple-A.”
And rookies don’t get the calls, either. Bochy defended his decision to intentionally walk Josh Donaldson, the A’s cleanup hitter who entered with a .396 average against lefties, to load the bases in the third.
“We’re trying to get out of that situation and limit the damage,” Bochy said. “Sure, I’m putting him in a tough situation. But putting the guy on base, that’s a no-brainer to me.”
Kickham’s 3-2 pitch to Jed Lowrie was just off the plate to walk in a run and blow up the strategy.
“At 3-2, I’m not going to get that call an inch off the plate, being a rookie,” Kickham said, matter-of-factly.
One more base hit and Kickham’s night was over. He didn’t win. Then again, neither did Cain, Lincecum, Vogelsong or Bumgarner.
So the night wasn’t a colossal letdown. Not to Kickham’s parents, who made the trip to see him pitch. Not to his girlfriend, or his twin brother, Dan, who had his own major league dreams, was drafted by the Tigers and played a year of independent ball before deciding to go back to school last year.
Dan was in attendance as well. Anyone seated around him had to be doing a double-take.
“We’re identical,” said Mike. “But he’s right-handed. I’m left-handed. Kind of interesting.”
Who knows? His next big league start might be a mirror image. Baseball is interesting that way, too.