Cain is THE pitcher of 2010 playoffs

Before it got silly, before a Texas reliever named Derek Holland walked three batters in 13 pitches, the second game of the World Series was actually a pitchers’ duel.

Now there have been a lot of pitching duels advertised these last few weeks. They were all supposed to be epic, though none of them actually were.

As it happened, David Price couldn’t really match up with Cliff Lee. Nor could the 38-year-old Andy Pettitte.

Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum — hyped as the greatest thing to happen in the National League since Bob Gibson faced Sandy Koufax — split less-than-classic starts in the NLCS.

And how could you forget the Series opener Wednesday evening, Lincecum versus Lee, a duel that saw 18 runs cross the plate?

But for six-plus innings, the duel between C.J. Wilson and Matt Cain exceeded anything yet seen this October. With a blister necessitating Wilson’s removal in the sixth, the score was still 1-0 Giants, a margin that could be measured in literal terms, as a matter of inches.

Edgar Renteria, who’s about 52, homered off Wilson in the bottom of the fifth, the ball traveling maybe 360 feet over the left field fence.

In the top of the frame, Texas’ Ian Kinsler clocked an 0-2 fastball that had to travel 400 feet to center field. But instead of dropping on the far side of the fence, where it would’ve given the Rangers a 1-0 lead, it actually hit the top of the fence and bounced back, kind of freakishly, onto the warning track. Kinsler had to settle for a leadoff double.

He’d advance no further; not with the way Cain was pitching.

Against a great Texas lineup, all Cain needed was the Renteria homer. And even as Ron Washington’s relievers managed to turn the night into an interminable slopfest, it occurred that the best pitcher this October wasn’t Halladay or Lincecum or even Lee. It was Matt Cain.

The guy hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 21.1 innings, making him 2-0 in his first three postseason starts.

And as the Rangers discovered with Kinsler on second, he’s even tougher to hit with men on base. With runners in scoring position, the Rangers were 0-7 against Cain.

Nothing really new there. Going back two seasons now, batters are hitting .193 against him with runners in scoring position.

“He’s probably been our most consistent pitcher,” said Giants Manager Bruce Bochy. “He’s such a bulldog … He should be recognized.”

At barely 26, Cain is an unlikely elder statesman for the Giants. Still, he’s been with the team longer than anyone on the roster, playing his first full season on a 2006 team that included Barry Bonds and Steve Finley, both 41; Moises Alou and Omar Vizquel, each of them 39; 38-year-old Jose Vizcaino; and who could forget 43-year-old lefty Jeff Fassero?

Actually, it was another aged pitcher who provided Cain with some much-needed mentoring.

Going into last season, Cain was known for his talent and hard luck. In 2007, he was 7-16. In 2008, he was 8-14. This despite a respectable ERA of about 3.70.

Then Randy Johnson, finishing his Hall of Fame career with the Giants, set him straight, telling Cain that his job as a starter was to get into the eighth inning.

“He did a really great job of emphasizing to stay deep in the game … instead of trying to change the ball in different guys’ hands,” Cain said. “Not trying to say anything … but sometimes those guys might not be feeling good.”

Translation: Don’t trust your record to the middle relievers. Get to your closer. Or at least to your setup man.

“You’ve got to try to work ahead in the count, that’s the big thing,” he said, try to make batters take “defensive swings.”

Cain is a big, bushy-haired Tennessean. He’s never lived in a town of more than 3,000. But he’s certainly at home pitching in front of 43,622.

What’s more, having been on so many weak-hitting teams, he’s learned to live without much run support.

Having been a Giant since 2005, he said, “You get used to pitching in tight ballgames.”

Cain celebrated his 26th birthday Oct. 1. Lincecum is four months older, but came up two years later.

If Lincecum’s nickname is Freak, Cain was asked, what should be yours?

“Gosh, I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t nickname ourselves.”

Maybe the Texas Rangers will come up with something.