As they counted outs by the Bay – four to go … three … two … one – it seemed that everyone at AT&T Park was going berserk.
Everyone, that is, except Matt Cain.
And that’s him. That’s the guy who refused to criticize teammates despite years of paltry run support; who was unbeaten and unscored upon in the 2010 National League Championship Series and World Series; whom the San Francisco Giants signed to a $127.5 million extension barely more than two months ago; who has been the franchise’s pitching pulse since shortly after his 2005 debut.
Wednesday night, Cain was more than the steady ace who snaps devastating sliders and halts losing streaks from behind a steely visage.
He was perfect.
Cain threw the 22nd perfect game in major league history — the first in the Giants’ 130 seasons — and it unfolded in a way that made you wonder if the baseball gods had huddled together and decided to reward him for his steadfastness.
There was no shortage of offense this time: The Giants thrashed Houston pitching for 10 runs, giving Cain the freedom to carve up Astros hitters as he saw fit. The San Francisco defense — plodding even during the World Series championship season — was equal parts spectacular and sure-handed.
Buster Posey, who fortunately hasn’t given up catching yet, called a brilliant game. Gregor Blanco sprawled onto the warning track in right-center to steal extra bases from Jordan Schafer in the seventh, and journeyman Joaquin Arias made a number of steely plays at third base. (Credit here to manager Bruce Bochy for making certain that Pablo Sandoval was not on the field.)
“In the seventh, when Blanco makes that catch in center field, I felt everyone on the mound with me,” Cain told Amy Gutierrez of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, moments after the final out. “The whole stadium was electric right there. It was unbelievable. I had to find a way to calm down. Somehow, it worked.”
And didn’t you sort of expect that it would?
I understand that perfect games are the ultimate marriage of talent and happenstance, occurring (on average) about as often as the Summer Olympics or U.S. presidential elections. Cain’s was only the 20th of the modern era, which dates to 1900.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that, with drug testing and dominant pitching, we’ve seen five perfect games in the past four seasons — including two this year. There is nothing normal about 27-up, 27-down.
But as the hour grew late and history beckoned, Cain pitched in a way that made you think the bigger surprise would have been if he didn’t get the 27th out. It wasn’t easy. It never is. And yet Cain looked comfortable, the way Roy Halladay did in his masterpiece against the Marlins two years ago. That’s a high compliment — and a fair one, too.
With Halladay idled by age and injury, it is Cain — not teammate Tim Lincecum — who is heir to Halladay’s distinction as the best right-handed pitcher in the National League.
He’s quite possibly the best NL pitcher, period, depending on your opinion of defending Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. Cain ranks second among National League pitchers with a 2.18 ERA and is perhaps the leading candidate to start for the NL in next month’s All-Star Game.
Cain’s greatest individual achievement comes amid intensifying speculation about Lincecum’s present and future, which adds intrigue to comparisons between the two. Lincecum, with two Cy Youngs and multiple magazine covers, has the higher national profile. The long hair, the marijuana citation, the unique mechanics — they have made Lincecum an iconoclast and cultural icon.
But now he has a 6.00 ERA and may be pitching for his rotation spot Saturday night in Seattle. For years, some within the organization have viewed the consistent Cain, 27, as their long-term No. 1. Now we know why.
Some players let their focus and work ethic slide after signing nine-figure contracts. Not Cain. He grew up in Alabama and Tennessee, hunting and driving pickups and (according to the team’s press guide) never living in a town with more than 3,000 residents.
The earnestness followed him to San Francisco. He’s not a self-promoter. He’s not especially famous. At times, he looks as nonplussed as a college junior who just rolled out of bed at 11 a.m. But a scorching competitiveness lies within him, and Wednesday it was there for the world to see.
This was the night the Giants’ metronome broke out into a speaker-rattling guitar solo. Never before had constancy seemed this captivating.