SAN FRANCISCO — Matt Cain, the big right-hander from Tennessee, took the mound at AT&T Park and briefly looked around as a surprising song filled the cool air. At the urging of his agent, Cain had switched his warm-up music to LL Cool J’s hit “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
As Cain prepared for his first big league start at home in nearly a full year, the lyrics started bouncing off the walls at AT&T Park.
“Don't call it a comeback … “
Okay, we’ll call it two comebacks. Two strong, needed comebacks that sent a jolt of energy through a listless team that had lost seven straight. Cain threw six shutout innings Tuesday and Hunter Pence drove in two runs and made a spectacular catch-and-throw in right field as the Giants beat the Mets 3-0.
Cain did what he does, providing a steadying hand and playing the part of the stopper. Pence complemented that ice with as much fire as he could muster after 30 games of watching and healing.
The right fielder hoped that he might be a surprise addition to the lineup Tuesday, but it was only hope until he ran into manager Bruce Bochy six hours before the first pitch.
“Are you ready?” Bochy asked Pence.
“I’m ready,” Pence. “Let’s go.”
The manager was looking for a spark and Pence set off a bonfire with a highlight play that saved Cain a run, shook a ballpark and energized an organization. It also briefly scared the hell out of a training staff that had worked so hard to get Pence and Cain back on the field, and had just one concern when both were penciled into Tuesday’s starting lineup. The trainers told Pence that the tendinitis in his left wrist had healed enough that swinging wouldn’t be a problem, but there was no way to account for the diving catches that helped put Pence back on the disabled list in the first place.
Pence, eager to join his teammates, pointed out that he could just as easily be tested defensively during a rehab assignment or during any point the rest of the season. The baseball gods have a wicked sense of humor, and naturally Pence went diving after a foul pop-up with Curtis Granderson on third and no outs in the sixth.
“I was just going over, I caught the ball with nothing to lose,” he said. “There’s nobody on base (after Granderson) and you just throw it as hard as you can. It’s kind of a miracle. All the stars kind of have to align.
“You’re hoping for a miracle.”
Pence didn’t need one. His strike to catcher Andrew Susac was as good as any of the 95 pitches Cain threw, and Susac’s slick tag sent Granderson back to the dugout with his head down.
“It’s one of the best plays I’ve seen,” Bochy said. “The whole play. It’s a great catch first of all, but he showed how athletic he is with how fast he got up.”
When the play was over, Pence pumped his fist and let out a roar. AT&T Park roared with him and Bochy smiled, knowing that Pence had given the Giants exactly what they needed in the dog days before the All-Star Break.
“We needed some presence out there with this streak going on,” he said. “Something to be a shot of adrenaline, and he gives you that … He plays with fire, he plays with energy, and that stuff is contagious.”
Pence added an RBI single and drove in a run with a bases-loaded groundout. Cain took care of the rest. While Pence said he was emotional before his return to the field, Cain felt nothing but excitement as he prepared for his second start of the season. The first one was a dud, but on this night Cain gave up just two hits and struck out seven over six innings. His fastball sat in the 92-93 range for stretches and topped out at 94 mph, a welcome sign for a pitcher who missed a year with bone chips in his elbow and a flexor strain in his right forearm.
“We definitely threw a lot more strikes this time out,” Cain said. “It’s been feeling good, even through the rehab starts I’ve been flashing those (velocity) numbers up there.”
Cain said Susac provided a good game plan (both Cain and Pence went out of their way to compliment the young catcher) and the duo focused on getting ahead of the Mets and putting guys away quickly. The bullpen, as shaky as any group during this skid, came through with three shutout innings — with George Kontos, Hunter Strickland and Josh Osich getting the ball to Santiago Casilla — and Cain clinched his first win since last July 9.
“Obviously he pitched magnificently, but more than his performance is his leadership, his accomplishments, his confidence,” Pence said. “He brings so much every fifth day beyond just his numbers. There are a lot of special things about Matt Cain that you can’t quantify.”
The same is often said of Pence, and together the two veterans helped right a team that needed this win in the worst way. Cain pointed the dugout in the right direction and Pence finished the job with a throw that wasn’t a miracle, but rather the result of a month of hard work. Even while he was in a cast, Pence would come out on the field early for long throwing sessions with strength coaches and trainers.
“The first time (when I was rehabbing) in Triple-A, my arm felt weird,” Pence said. “I made it an emphasis to try to be prepared.”
There was nothing weird this time around.
“The moment was just perfect,” Cain said.