SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As he took a bullpen mound for his first session of spring training, Matt Cain turned to the catcher he has trusted in good times and bad.
“Hey, I’m Matt,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
Over the course of 40 pitches on an overcast day in the desert, it became clear to Buster Posey that he didn’t need an introduction. He knows this Matt Cain. He won two titles with this version. A year ago, Posey watched from the squat as Cain subtly grimaced after many of his pitches. The right-hander was in the midst of the worst season of his career and would have bone chips removed from his pitching elbow on Aug. 11. On Friday, Posey saw a guy who was pitching free and easy, not grimacing.
“It was nice, smooth,” Posey said. “It looked really good.”
It felt good, too.
Cain has been throwing since December, but Friday’s session was his first in front of a crowd of any kind, and it was taken seriously. The 40-pitch session was split in half, with Cain taking a five-minute break so that he could continue to give maximum effort throughout. He said he was throwing with the same intensity he would use in any bullpen session, not holding back at all or babying his elbow.
“It felt pretty much full speed,” he said. “This is probably the best my arm strength has felt, shoulder-wise.”
Cain’s surgery wasn’t nearly as serious as Tommy John, but he’s benefiting from a similar effect. Pitchers who have Tommy John surgery often come back stronger because they spent a year strengthening their shoulders and all the muscles around their elbow. Cain did the same after last August’s procedure and said his offseason throwing program was more rigorous than past ones.
“The ball is definitely coming out a lot easier,” he said. “I feel like I’m not having to try to muscle the ball to the plate.”
The elbow isn’t the only part of Cain’s body that’s feeling healthier this year. Persistent ankle soreness caused Cain to change his workout routine during the 2014 season. After years of running stadium steps and distances between starts, he embraced the exercise bike because running would lead to ankle soreness he termed “annoying.” An arthroscopic procedure in September removed a bone spur from the right ankle, which was completely healed within a month. After throwing his bullpen session, Cain returned to a back field to run with trainer Carl Kochan.
Cain may still remain a day or two behind other starters for a few weeks, and he’s trying not to get ahead of himself. When asked about the prospect of throwing to hitters during live BP sessions next week, the longest-tenured Giant said it’s not in the forefront of his mind but probably will be the second he sees other starters on the mound. The Giants who stand in against Cain will just about get the full experience; he threw mostly fastballs Friday, but mixed in his changeup and curveball at times. The slider comes next.
“There’s nothing that I can’t do,” he said.