SAN FRANCISCO — Johnny Cueto received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd when he walked down the dugout steps after the eighth, and the applause was even louder when he walked back up for the top of the ninth.
While Cueto appreciated the fans, a gesture from teammates might have meant a bit more. The position players literally tipped their caps to Cueto after his fourth complete game in 18 starts. Following the lead of Brandon Belt, Cueto’s infielders and outfielders took their caps off and tucked them under their arms Cueto style as they walked through the high-five line.
After throwing 118 pitches and carrying the Giants to a 5-1 win over the Rockies, Cueto hugged catcher Buster Posey and then turned toward the rest of the Giants. A wide smile broke across his face as he saw the line of players waiting for him, hats tucked under their left arms. It's a move Cueto pulls after the end of every inning.
“I liked it,” Cueto said later. “I liked to see that.”
Belt, who said Cueto was the toughest right-hander he faced in previous seasons, approached the other infielders with the idea before the game.
“They were all-in,” he said, smiling. “I want to take credit for it, but I feel like I heard it somewhere else first. But as of right now, I’m going to take credit.”
[INSTANT REPLAY: Cueto goes the distance, carries Giants past Rockies]
Credit aside, it shows you quite a bit about what Cueto’s teammates think of him that they could so readily imagine him going the distance. Cueto himself had the same expectation a day after watching the Giants bullpen make a mess of a Madison Bumgarner lead. He said he approached Santiago Casilla on Tuesday and told him, “I haven’t thrown a complete game in a while. I guess it’s time for me to throw one.”
Cueto was at 95 pitches after seven and 110 after eight. In the ninth, he struck out DJ LeMahieu and got Nolan Arenado to ground out to short (completing an 0-for-4 for Arenado that previously seemed impossible against the Giants). Carlos Gonzalez grounded out to first on Cueto’s final pitch.
“He seems to have an extra gear,” Posey said. “I think he does a nice job of pacing himself to start off the game, to where he’s got enough left in the tank to finish it off.”
Cueto leads the Majors in complete games and he’s 10 innings clear of the field at 131 1/3. He is fourth among NL starters in WHIP (1.00) and fifth in ERA (2.47). At 13-1, Cueto leads the National League in wins. The Giants are 16-2 when he takes the mound.
All of which is to say, Cueto has made a strong push to start the All-Star Game on Tuesday in San Diego.
“He certainly has made an enormous case to start that game,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “What a great first half he had. He’s just been a pleasure.”
Bochy said Cueto has “gone beyond” the expectations the organization had for him when he signed a $130 million deal in December, noting that the ability to carry such a heavy workload has been a godsend. A night after a dispiriting loss, Cueto righted Bochy’s ship.
“He reminds me of a riverboat gambler,” Bochy said. “He’s in such control with his body and his pitches and he’s not afraid of anything or any situation that comes up.”
Bochy said he has talked to Terry Collins, and the manager of the Mets assured him that Cueto will pitch Tuesday. Collins could not guarantee that Cueto will start, and he surely will give equal or more consideration to Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, who takes a 9-3 record, 2.41 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 123 strikeouts into his start Friday against the Nationals.
Bochy has been in Collins’ position three times in the last five years and knows it’s well within his right to lean toward his own guy. Still, the Giants are hopeful that Cueto will throw the first pitch.
“It would be big,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “It would mean a lot. It would be the first time that I’m pitching in an All-Star Game and I want to pitch.”
No matter how it turns out, Cueto will head to San Diego knowing he gave the Giants everything they needed in the season’s first half. The crowd told him that Wednesday night. His teammates did, too.
“He’s been huge for us,” Belt said. “It just seems like he’s in shutdown mode every time he goes out there. It’s been awesome to see him do his thing, and part of that thing is he takes his hat off. We wanted to join in on it.”