SAN FRANCISCO — Johnny Cueto walked slowly into the Giants dugout at 6:45pm, a smile already glued to his face. He stopped for a sip of water and then popped pink gum into his mouth and started chomping away. There was no intense glare, no scowl that told others to stay away. Cueto chewed his gum and smiled as Giants fans screamed his name.
Three hours later, that smile was still there. Cueto watched the 27th out of the night sail across the infield and turned for a hug from his beaming catcher. Buster Posey couldn’t help himself.
“He makes it fun,” Posey said. “He kind of plays the game like a kid. It’s something … you can be envious of it at times. He’s able to go out there and it’s like he’s playing backyard baseball at times.”
The smiles and fist-pumps and bubbles the size of his head hide a different truth about Cueto. You don’t get to 100 wins by happenstance, and Cueto got the milestone one in dominant fashion. He struck out 11 while pitching his seventh career shutout, and he showed Posey something along the way.
“He’s very, very smart,” Posey said. “Even in a short time, he’s one of the best I’ve seen in reading swings.”
Cueto also has proven to be adept at reading the game. James Shields was his equal for much of the night, but the Giants got the only run across in the fifth when Brandon Crawford picked up the game’s first hit and Denard Span lined a double off the bricks in right.
“When he got that run you could see he kind of smelled it there a little bit and turned it up a notch,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He really elevated his game. He kind of took control at that point.”
[INSTANT REPLAY: Cueto shuts out Padres, strikes out 11]
Cueto said he got more aggressive once given a lead, and behind him his fielders noticed a subtle change. The right-hander had cruised through the first few innings, striking out the side in the third, and he started to air it out a bit more as the win got closer. Span kept checking the scoreboard early and seeing 89-90 mph fastballs, but in the later innings he would look up and see 93 when needed.
“There are a handful of pitchers in the game where when they smell blood, when guys are in scoring position, they turn into a different kind of a pitcher,” Span said.
Cueto’s biggest spot came in the eighth. Brett Wallace hit a leadoff single and Cory Gearrin started to warm up as Cueto’s pitch count climbed into triple-digits. Jon Jay went down on a 93 mph fastball and Wil Myers swung through 93 for the second out. Posey corralled that pitch and then threw a rope down to second, nabbing pinch-runner Travis Jankowski.
Cueto followed Posey’s throw to second, leaning toward the bag and then jumping up and pumping his fist as AT&T Park shook. He later called Posey his brother, complimenting the work his catcher did.
“I wanted to celebrate that big play,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros.
Bochy let Cueto go back out for the ninth but Santiago Casilla was warming up. A night earlier, Casilla had earned his 100th save. Cueto was one hit away from giving way to his fellow Dominican right-hander, but he got Matt Kemp to fly out for the first out and then got the final two outs on consecutive pitches.
Cueto threw 119 pitches, giving up seven hits and walking one. He became the 12th Dominican-born pitcher to win 100 games.
“I can’t say I’m surprised by what he’s doing,” Bochy said. “That’s why we wanted him here. It's been fun to watch him. He's got great stuff, but he's a complete pitcher. I love watching games where a pitcher is like an artist out there."
Cueto’s teammates didn’t know much about him when he came over from the American League, but he has been a perfect fit in the clubhouse and on the field. On a team with a suddenly reeling bullpen, Cueto has thrown a league-leading 37 1/3 innings and he’s tied for the National League lead with four wins. The second one came on a day when Cueto gave up five runs in the first inning but held on to beat the Dodgers, and Posey said that day, not Tuesday, was Cueto’s most important one in orange and black. It taught teammates a lot about Cueto's resiliency and competitiveness.
“That game against the Dodgers showed me more than anything,” he said. “He kinda won me over with that.”
With 27 outs Tuesday, Cueto won over everyone else.