SAN FRANCISCO — Johnny Cueto, sidelined by an injury, was in the opposing clubhouse when Hunter Pence gave his famous speech in Cincinnati in 2012. After the first inning Sunday, Cueto got a taste of that optimism.
Pence and Angel Pagan approached Cueto after a tire fire of a first inning. In his home debut as a Giant, the right-hander trailed 5-0 and his knee and back ached from a slip in the mud behind the plate.
“My teammates told me to keep the game at 5-0 and they would do the rest,” Cueto said.
Six innings later, his day was done — and it was viewed as a success by his manager and new teammates. Two innings after that, Cueto officially picked up his second win in as many starts. He is the first Giant since Ryan Jensen in 2002 to give up five runs in the first and get a win. Nobody in Orange and Black felt like it was an unearned one.
“For him to end up going seven says a couple of things,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s how tough he is, and that he’s a pro.”
Second baseman Joe Panik had the go-ahead hit in the sixth and credited Cueto for keeping this one respectable.
“Johnny did a great job of settling down and keeping us in the game,” he said. “And with our offense, there’s no sense of panic.”
Bochy always says that the best time to get a good starter is the first inning, but on this day the damage early wasn’t all Cueto’s fault. The Giants had their infield shifted away from the right-field line when right-hander Trayce Thompson came up, so a potential double-play ball turned into a two-run single. Cueto was late getting to first on a squeeze, but Matt Duffy also couldn’t get back to third on a bunt, wiping out another double-play chance. In all, the five-run first came on five singles (one a bunt single), two sacrifices, a hit-by-pitch and a walk.
“He could have pouted,” catcher Buster Posey said. “He could have pouted and shut it down. But he stayed resilient and was able to help us win the game. I think that’s kind of what we were hoping when he signed here. As rough a start as he had, to go seven, the numbers don’t look good but it’s a great performance.”
Pitching coach Dave Righetti met with Cueto after the first and told him to get more depth on his pitches. Posey said that made a big difference, and Cueto settled into an easy groove. He struck out eight of 16 at one point, and Bochy left him in to hit for himself with two outs and two on in the fifth. Bochy said he let Cueto hit because a couple guys in the bullpen needed a day off and he liked the way Cueto was throwing. Cueto grounded out but went two more innings.
Panik’s ringing double made him a winner, capping a day that included homers from Posey, Brandon (now here until 2021) Belt and Angel Pagan.
“This offense has picked us up the whole series,” Bochy said. “It’s a great message for the pitchers. Keep going, keep grinding, and give us a chance to catch up.”
The Giants came from behind in all three wins over the Dodgers, getting an early edge in the season-long back-and-forth. The wild series could be an important one looking back. The Dodgers are short-handed, with 11 players on the DL, and the Giants are completely healthy. At some point that dynamic will shift, but the Giants took advantage of the current state by banking two extra wins.
The first was a 12-run explosion, the second a walk-off. The Giants suffered a tough loss Saturday after taking an early lead, and Bochy and Brian Sabean talked about it late Saturday night.
“We’re getting our hearts tested already in the early going,” Bochy said of the dramatic series.
The Giants know what they can do against a good team. They might have the best lineup in the National League, and Bumgarner and Cueto are a talented one-two punch. The rotation looks deeper than expected, especially if Matt Cain keeps pitching the way he did Friday. The bullpen remains a big strength.
On the flip side the Dodgers are deeper than in past years, and they put out a competitive lineup without Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Yasmani Grandal and Howie Kendrick, all of whom are on the DL. Their rookie No. 5 starter didn't allow a hit, but the new No. 2, Scott Kazmir, doesn’t look capable of turning this Giants lineup over three times. Corey Seager will be a handful for the next decade, and Yasiel Puig looks more like the Puig of old, not the one who had a down year in 2015. Then there’s the bullpen, which remains a roller coaster until Kenley Jansen gets the ball.
The Giants and Dodgers learned a lot about each other over four games, and they’ll do this five more times, starting next weekend in Los Angeles. Bochy is looking forward to it.
“They’ve been good games,” he said. “It’s been good for baseball, and I think it’s good for us.”