SAN FRANCISCO -- The final pitch, the 69th of Johnny Cueto's first night back, reminded the Giants of everything they've been missing over the past 13 months.
There was the brief hesitation at the top of his delivery and an exaggerated turn away from the batter, a bit of flair that's lacking with most of today's pitchers. Then came the pitch, an 81 mph changeup that was right across the heart of the plate but had far too much movement to do anything but miss Kevin Kramer's bat. Finally, there was the whirling fist pump and that familiar smile, a reminder that nobody has more fun on the mound than Johnny Cueto.
The first night back from Tommy John surgery was a success in every way. Cueto allowed just one hit over five shutout innings, striking out four and showing his old velocity and repertoire. The former staff co-ace got right back in the win column, too. The Giants beat the Pirates, 5-4.
“That was Johnny like we know,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “For him to go out there and do this his first outing, that’s pretty impressive.”
There was nothing about Cueto’s start, other than the emotion, to indicate that this was any sort of special occasion. The quick pace was there. Ditto with the command. Cueto hit 93.4 mph and averaged 91.3, the exact same velocity he had in 2017, his last healthy season.
The next year, the elbow pain became too much, and Cueto underwent reconstructive surgery last August. There were no bumps in the rehab process, and Giants officials have been quietly optimistic all season long that Cueto would return as his old self. With a staff full of young question marks, led by an ace -- Madison Bumgarner -- who will be a free agent, the Giants desperately need Cueto to resume being one of the National League's better right-handers. Tuesday night, then, was extremely encouraging.
"He was just so happy today -- before the game, during the game, after," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "You could just tell he was having fun. It's nice to be on this side of it. You see the joy he's out there with. He's pitching, he hits his spots. He's an artist. He really is."
Bochy planned to check on Cueto before announcing a next step, but the right-hander will start either Sunday at home or Tuesday in Boston. It will be relatively normal from here on out, although Cueto will still have a pitch count. He was set for 70 on Tuesday and was one pitch away when he threw his final strike.
Bochy said that would have been it if Cueto walked Kramer. Cueto smiled later and said he wasn't so sure.
"I knew I wanted to strike him out," he said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "If I walked him and Bochy came out, I was going to tell him to give me one last hitter."
It didn't come to that. On this night, there would be no bumps in the road.