Encore to year for ages will be tough, but Cain's game
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- What do you do for an encore in the afterglow of the closest thing to a perfect season a ballplayer can experience?
"I don't think you can," Matt Cain said on Thursday, having gone three innings (three earned runs, four hits) against the Mariners in his second Cactus League start. "In a way, you could be setting yourself up for failure."
Cain pitched the first perfect game in the Giants' 130-year history on June 13 against the Astros, with a bow toward right fielder Gregor Blanco for his otherworldly catch.
Cain started and won the All-Star Game for the National League, working two scoreless innings. Cain notched victories in the deciding games of the NL Division Series, the NL Championship Series and the World Series, a rare triple play.
"Obviously, you don't get that many opportunities to pitch a perfect game," Cain said. "Then, starting the All-Star Game and winning. A lot of things went really well. To repeat that, it's asking a lot. You can't be mad if you come up short."
His goals, he said, were to make all of his 33 starts and pitch as many innings as he ordinarily delivers. The rest is up to the same baseball gods who smiled so freely on him in a season for the ages.
"Couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy," teammate Shane Loux, a well-traveled reliever, said. "For some reason, he doesn't seem to get mentioned when people talk about the best pitchers in the game, but Matt's as good as anybody."
Cain is baseball's John Wayne, commanding respect with his presence and actions, his professionalism.
"He's the leader of the clubhouse," Loux said. "He doesn't even have to say a word. It's the way he carries himself, how he relates to everyone and treats everybody the same. How many superstars drive a truck to work?"
Cain is never one to overreact to results. His early-spring struggles -- eight hits allowed, seven runs (three earned) in four innings -- are of no concern. A contusion in his right leg, which got in the way of a line drive by the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano in his Mesa debut, didn't keep Cain from making his second start.
"I didn't have a problem running around or anything," he said. "It was just sore, and [the training staff] did a good job of treating it. Everything felt good. I just got a little out of rhythm."
Born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee, Cain -- a first-round pick by the Giants in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft -- clearly hasn't lost sight of his core values.
"Matt is one of the few starters I've been around who is exactly the same on the day he pitches as the other four days," Loux said. "His mood doesn't change at all. He has this part figured out.
"It's the perspective he has. No matter what happens on the field, he's a husband, a father, a person beyond baseball. He's done that the best of anyone I've seen."
Cain is embarking on his eighth full season at age 28. He hasn't missed a start because of injury since moving into the rotation in 2006, averaging 215 innings per season. He gained respect among peers for not complaining in his early years when his run support was the Majors' worst. He understood his job was to keep his team in games, even if an "L" was waiting for him.
The most misleading stat in Major League Baseball is Cain's 85-78 career record. Through his first three full seasons, he was 28-42. True to character, he managed to turn that negative into a positive, developing an unbreakable attitude that has served him well in anxious moments of big games.
Cain made reference to that conditioning on the eve of his Game 4 clinching start in the World Series in Detroit.
"I think it definitely taught me how to pitch in close situations and in close games, try to find ways to dig [myself] out of sticky innings, things like that," Cain said. "So I think it definitely benefited me early in my career, to learn how to do that.
"And I think it's definitely made me better."
Cain was close to perfect during the Giants' 2010 championship run, yielding one unearned run across 21 1/3 innings. Human last October (12 earned runs in 30 innings), he was nails in clinching opportunities against the Reds, Cardinals and Tigers.
He's 4-2 in eight career postseason starts with a 2.10 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. Pressure? That's for the tires on his truck.
"He's so cool under fire on the field," Loux said. "And it doesn't hurt that he's got all the talent in the world."
The current gold standard is overpowering Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Some would argue for the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw or the Rays' David Price, all unleashing mid-90s heat.
Cain operates along the lines of the Angels' Jered Weaver, keeping hitters off balance with a deep arsenal. Style is secondary to substance, but he can put away hitters (career-high 193 strikeouts in 2012) when the situation calls for it.
His 16 wins (against five losses) represented a career best along with his 2.74 ERA, fourth in the NL. Only R.A. Dickey and Kershaw threw more innings than Cain's 219 1/3, and only Kershaw in the NL held hitters to a lower on-base percentage than Cain's .274. His .635 OPS allowed was third best, behind Gio Gonzalez and Kershaw.
Cain took it up a notch with runners in scoring position, holding hitters to an anemic .171 average. Only Jordan Zimmermann, at .163, was tougher.
When it counts, Cain brings the pain.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.