ST. LOUIS -- Matt Cain said this start didn't feel any bigger than others. He didn't feel the pressure of trying to keep a rotation spot. But Cain was pitching for a spot, even if the Giants didn't make such bold statements publicly.
It wasn't until Mike Leake's return was delayed on Monday night that the Giants officially announced Cain as their Wednesday starter, and he went out and showed he's still plenty capable of sticking in the rotation. The Giants lost 4-3 at Busch Stadium and dropped two of three to baseball's best team, but Cain's outing against the Cardinals was widely described as "really encouraging" in the losing clubhouse. Cain gave up two runs in the first three innings but retired 11 of the final 13 hitters he faced while getting through six innings for the first time since July 28.
"Matty really settled down and threw well," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He started locating well and mixing up pitches. After the first two innings, I thought he regrouped and gave us a great effort."
[INSTANT REPLAY: Molina ruins Giants' chance to gain ground]
Catcher Andrew Susac said Cain did a good job "of getting on top of the ball and executing down in the zone." The Cardinals were intent on going the other way early, and they lashed rockets all around the park. Cain got a break when Juan Perez pulled a homer back, and several other shots found gloves. Once he adjusted, Cain said he found a rhythm he's been looking for.
"I had a lot better rhythm, I kept the momentum going throughout," he said. "That's the big thing, even in those starts in the past where things went (south), I got a little out of rhythm. I've gotta do a better job of (sticking to it) and I did tonight."
Cain said he and Susac "kept the pedal down," but the Giants ran out of gas late. They gave up the tying run in the seventh on a series of soft grounders, and Hunter Strickland gave up a go-ahead bomb to Yadier Molina in the eighth. Strickland had dominated the seventh, getting a strikeout and flyout to get the Giants out of a jam. He threw all fastballs that inning, touching 99, and he and Susac didn't want Molina sitting heater when he came up in the eighth. Strickland threw one slider, and then a second. That one ended up in the seats.
"The first slider was good," Susac said. "The second one got away."
A win slipped through the grasp, but it wasn't a total loss. The Dodgers got swept in Oakland this week, so the Giants left St. Louis having actually picked up half a game in the standings.
"It's a good club we're playing," Bochy said. "They found a way to win. That's why their record is the way it is."
--- Let's start with this: Of course your bench is going to be weak when you're without Hunter Pence, Nori Aoki, Angel Pagan and Joe Panik. The front office couldn't plan for all those hits. They have Gregor Blanco as a fill-in for outfielders, and he's been great. Kelby Tomlinson had two more hits Wednesday and Bochy said he'll be the guy going forward until Panik returns. Others have shown flashes and filled holes here and there, but few organizations have the depth to withstand this sort of barrage.
That being said, the Giants have to find some way to make sure that Madison Bumgarner isn't the best pinch-hit option in big games in September and maybe October. That's absolutely no knock on Bumgarner, who is a legit threat at the plate and has really good at-bats. As Ryan Vogelsong said Tuesday, Bumgarner doesn't get enough credit for taking tough pitches. But he's also your ace, and you obviously can't use him in a game he started. You're also taking some extra risk by sending him up there against a guy like Trevor Rosenthal, who throws 100 mph but can be wild.
On this night, Bumgarner was the best option. Down by one, two outs.
"We're going for it there," Bochy said. "He's got more home runs than who I had on the bench. He got a hit last night. I was going with the hot hand. I knew he was going to give us good swings, which he did."
Bumgarner doesn't get cheated, and that's what you want in that spot. Few on the entire team had a better shot of running into one against Rosenthal. Bochy originally sent Ryan Lollis to the on-deck circle, but Bumgarner was lurking with a bat and helmet, and he got the call when pinch-hitter Gregor Blanco and Perez made outs.
"I try to be ready all the time when you're looking at situations that might come up," Bumgarner said. "I'm not looking for excitement. I'm trying to help win ballgames."
This is no gimmick. Bumgarner takes it seriously and he's good at what he does. We saw that Tuesday night. Still, you can bet Bobby Evans and crew will burn up the phone lines in the coming days -- as they have done this week, too -- in search of a player who can make sure Bochy at least has options down the stretch.
--- Perez's catch was part-Willie Mays, part-Spider-Man. He said he ran back thinking that if the ball stayed in the park, he would have a good chance at it. It didn't, but that didn't matter.
"That was just reaction," Perez said. "That made it a little (more fun), making the basket catch with your back to the field."
Cain said he thought Perez would have a shot and then "all of a sudden he just climbed the wall." Perez called it the best catch of his career, topping the one he made in his debut in Phoenix a few years back.