SAN FRANCISCO -- Matt Cain grabs his daughter’s hands and swings her up and down in the hallway leading from the San Francisco Giants locker room to the treatment room. He has a smile on his face. His chain-straight arms no more than playground equipment for two-and-a-half-year old Hartley Mae, his gait loose and carefree.
As he wades through the flock of media, he smiles. He’s just finished his longest outing of the season, netting his first win of the campaign in a 4-3 Sunday win over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, ensuring a sweep in a tightly-contested weekend series. It’s Cinco de Mayo, and the 28-year old righty is the toast of the town.
“I think I wasn’t making as many mistakes, and even some of the mistakes that I was making, it happened that they were hitting ‘em at guys,” Cain said. “They had some hard-hit balls that were just at guys, and also, we had some good defense.”
Cain tossed 109 pitches -- 68 for strikes -- in his 7.1 innings of work, scattering five hits and three walks while striking out four and allowing one earned run – his best performance since an Opening Day loss to the Boys in Blue, when he turned in 6.0 shutout innings in a duel with Clayton Kershaw.
“He did a great job,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “No runs going into the eighth inning, great job, great effort by Matty. I thought he got better as he went, kept the ball down a little better. His secondary pitches got crisper. Solid effort. Good for Matty. It’s a win, but it took a while. That’s good to get off his back. He gave us what we needed. He got us into the eighth inning.”
The Giants had used six pitchers in each of the previous two games, but Cain’s outing allowed San Francisco to save the pen, with no other pitcher throwing more than 12 pitches. Those dozen tosses came out of the hand of closer Sergio Romo, who tossed a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his 12th save of the season.
“We’ve definitely been taxing the bullpen a lot,” Cain said. “We’ve got to do a better job as starters to get deeper into the game and let those guys get a little rest, because they’ve definitely been picking us up a lot. It was a tough weekend. Those guys came in and played well and we had to rally back a couple times. That’s definitely the nice part about playing at home. We’ve definitely got an extra man out there. They’re going to be cheering for you a ton, and that’s definitely been a benefit.”
Cain was far from perfect, allowing several hard-hit balls over the first three innings before finally settling into a groove. After allowing three hits over his first three frames, Cain retired 10 of the next 14 hitters he faced, striking out two, including slugging Matt Kemp in the top of the sixth, concluding a nine-pitch battle with a swing-and-miss slider.
“Those are big situations right there,” Cain said. “That was to lead off the inning. You get in those battles early in an inning, and if he gets a hit there, it changes that whole inning. Two more guys get on, it could change some things, so you’ve definitely got to focus on getting that first guy.”
Cain had struggled mightily over his first six starts of the season, going 0-2 with a 6.49 ERA, rivaling the struggles that befell Tim Lincecum at the start of last season, when the two-time Cy Young winner went 2-2 in his first six outings of 2012 with a 5.68 ERA.
Much like Lincecum, Cain had faced lingering questions swirling about his arm in the first part of 2013. Sunday’s performance did quite a bit to dispel those rumors.
“It felt good,” said Cain, who sat in the low 90s all evening with his four-seam fastball. “My arm’s felt good and my body’s felt good, throughout it all, it’s just tweaking it a little bit and making better pitches at times. That hadn’t been the problem. It’s just making better pitches. Sometimes, you might want to wish -- when things are going that bad -- you might wish something’s going wrong, physically, but that wasn’t the case. You’ve just got to keep putting your head down and going at it.”
Cain had been topping out in the high-80s and barely creeping over 90 with his fastball, leaving pitches up and surrendering nine home runs in just 34.2 innings of work. On Sunday, Cain was hitting 93 with his heater all the way into the eighth inning, when he was taken out following a one-out walk to Kemp.
“That was it,” Bochy said. “He was getting up there a little bit. He did his job. He’s a horse you can let go, but he’d gone far enough at that point and was doing such a good job. He looked a little tired.”
As Cain walked off the mound, the sell-out crowd of 41,140 gave him a standing ovation, one it’s seemingly been aching to bestow upon the struggling ace.
“That was great to hear,” Cain said. “That’s something that these guys have been doing more than 180 games straight. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s definitely really fun to play here. We always get pumped up when we’re out here with that.”
Going winless in the month of April had weighed on Cain, but now that he’s got that first W out of the way, he can concentrate on moving forward.
“It’s not something I was proud of,” he said. “I just didn’t pitch well for the guys. I had to step it up. I feel like I got better as the game went along, started making a lot better pitches and started getting ahead in the count, and that’s my main goal: Try to get those guys defensive and keep things going quick.”
Cain relied primarily on that fastball in the first inning, throwing only two off speed pitches, but as the game wore on, he turned to the rest of his repertoire, throwing 42 sliders, 13 curveballs and 12 change ups from the second inning on.
Cain’s slide piece was particularly effective, accounting for seven outs and one strikeout on the night, while his change accounted for four outs with the Dodgers managing just one hit.
“I was giving up hits and home runs on counts where I was ahead in the count, and I wasn’t necessarily trying to bear down and think about that; I just made better pitches today when I was ahead in the count, and [Guillermo] Quiroz did a good job of keeping me locked in and keeping me focused,” Cain said.
Los Angeles hitters went just 1-for-8 against Cain’s slider and 1-for-6 against his change, both of which became much more important with every inning, as the Dodgers went 3-for-11 against his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, with two walks.
“You need those,” Cain said of his secondary pitches. “A lot of games, you might start off with two of your four pitches, and maybe something better will come. Knowing that you’ve got all four pitches working early in the game, it’s a good day, but sometimes, you’ve got to work with it, and sometimes they’ll come as the game goes along.”
Now, with the Giants on a six-game winning streak and sitting atop the NL West, with a 13-6 mark against divisional opponents and four sweeps, Cain is looking forward to more of the same, especially after a weekend where all three games against the Dodgers were decided by one run.
“That’s really all you can do: Try to get into the playoffs,” Cain said. “The best way to do that is to win your division, so you’ve got to take those division games seriously. It’s not that you wouldn’t take any other game seriously or a little less seriously, but you definitely want to go in there and it’s definitely a confidence-booster when you can take two or three from guys that are in your division.”
Ryan Gorcey covers Major League Baseball and publishes CalSportsDigest.com for Scout.com and FOX Sports NEXT. Follow him on twitter at @RGBearTerritory.