SAN FRANCISCO — On May 1, 2012, one month after signing a long-term extension and six weeks before he would throw his perfect game, Matt Cain dominated the Marlins. Cain was 27 years old at the time and in his prime, and he gave up just two earned runs over eight innings. He struck out four, got 10 outs on the ground, and threw just 102 pitches before giving up the ball.
He also took the loss.
That night would be a tough one to swallow for any pitcher. For Cain, it was just more of what he had gotten used to. Since 2006, his first full season, Cain is a distant last in Major League Baseball in run support. At 4.01 runs per game, he is well behind runner-up Paul Maholm (4.28). After that 2-1 loss in 2012, he stood at his locker and tipped his cap to counterpart Ricky Nolaso.
“I knew that he’s thrown pretty well here and I knew I was going to have to battle,” Cain said. “I just made a couple more mistakes than he did.”
Cain will make his 331st and final start for the Giants on Saturday. To understand why it is such a big deal for his teammates and the organization, look past the postseason wins, the perfect game and the All-Star selections. Look at how Cain handled himself on the dozens of nights when he pitched well enough to win, received no run support, and calmly stood at his locker after the game and placed the blame squarely on his own shoulders. It happened so many times that pitchers in this organization will forever be known as getting “Cained” when they suffer similar luck.
“That’s what I probably admire as much as anything I saw from a player, is how he handled some of those tough games that we lost where he would go out and just throw a beautiful game and get beat 1-0 or 2-1,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “It was just amazing how many times it happened, but he’s unflappable and he didn’t let it bother him. He had the attitude of, ‘I’ll do all I can to help this team win, and you can’t control some things.’ He didn’t let it get to him, and that’s what makes him special.”
Cain laughed this week when recounting how he first started to hear about fans embracing the brutal nights. “It’s probably not exactly what you want to have coined, but it happened,” he said of getting Cained. But as he winds down a run with the organization that started with the 2002 draft, Cain said getting Cained is not a part of his legacy that actually bothers him. If anything, he views those nights as a positive.
“In a weird way I think it kind of paid off, because we were used to playing those close games once it came to playoff time,” he said. “There were a lot of crunch-time games and I think the guys in the rotation during those (postseason games) understood, ‘Hey, I’ve been in this spot a ton of times. I know what it’s like to be behind 1-0 or 2-0. Let’s just keep it here.’
“In a weird way, I think that’s a benefit. There’s a way you can look at it as being a positive and we tried to find ways to do that.”
It’s hard to find fault with that when you look at how Cain actually performed in the postseason. He had a 2.10 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in eight career October starts. In 2010, his first postseason, he didn’t allow an earned run in 21 1/3 innings. Two years later, he started the clincher in all three series victories. Cain said he fought nerves for two days before starting the NLDS win over the Reds that year, but teammates never saw any fear.
Cain is famously calm, carrying the same flat tone through all interactions. Just as he rarely showed excess emotion during those postseason starts, he was not one to be outwardly annoyed on the many nights when he deserved better. He said he learned that lesson from Randy Johnson and other veterans who passed through as he was finding his big league footing.
“Once that comes out of your mouth, it’s just so easy to keep repeating it,” he said of the blame game. “Obviously people are going to get frustrated about situations they’re in, but you’ve got to be able to bite your tongue and understand that there could be a bigger picture somewhere down the road.”
That meant not being bothered by the record on the scoreboard, which at all times should have been better. Cain enters his final start with a 104-118 record and he’s tied for fifth in wins in San Francisco Giants history. But he should be much higher on the list.
Cain has 55 starts in his career where he went at least seven innings, allowed two-or-fewer earned runs, and didn’t get a win. He has six starts where he threw seven shutout innings and got a no-decision, and twice he threw nine shutout innings and then watched as the Giants won in extras.
It’s one thing to get a no-decision on those nights, but it’s a bit harder when you actually take a loss.
In 17 of his starts, Cain has pitched at least seven innings, given up two-or-fewer runs, and taken a loss. On two occasions, he went seven innings, gave up just one unearned run, and ended up the losing pitcher.
It’s a part of Cain’s legacy that the team’s hitters wish didn’t exist. But for the pitching staff, those games made Cain a shining example of how to deal with big league life.
“I think you know the right way to handle it, but so few people are able to do it,” said Madison Bumgarner, who has six complete-game losses in his career. “It helped reinforce it to young guys who saw the way he handled things. I don’t know if I ever saw him make an unprofessional move.”