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Cueto feeds off fans at Oracle, puts on show in Giants' win

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Johnny Cueto tipping his cap to fans

Gabe Kapler waited nearly a year and a half to get a chance to manage the Giants in front of the home fans. He then had to wait nearly the entire game to get a chance to step out in front of those fans, and it didn't go as he might have dreamed. 

Johnny Cueto was so firmly set on cruise control that Kapler never stepped onto the field until there was one out in the ninth. With a 3-1 lead and Cueto at 110 pitches, Kapler tucked his hands behind his back and quickly made his way to the mound. He was immediately showered with boos from the 7,390 in attendance at Oracle Park for the home opener. 

"This is not the first time I've been booed, I promise you that," Kapler said later, smiling. "I understand. The fans wanted to see Johnny finish that game. I wanted to see Johnny finish that game. Everyone in the dugout wanted to see Johnny finish that game. I think I was right there with them. If I would have been in their shoes, I would have done the same thing."

Kapler is analytical in everything he does, but he showed in that moment that he's willing to let emotion take over every once in a while, and that he knows how to win over a crowd. After a brief meeting with infielders who also wanted Cueto to stay in the game, Kapler spun and strolled back to the dugout by himself. The boos turned to loud cheers. 

 

Cueto would not finish the win, but he came as close as possible. He recorded 26 of 27 outs, threw 118 pitches, and got a two-run double from Brandon Crawford in the seventh that was all the Giants would need during a flawless return home. 

The outing was Cueto's longest since 2016, and he threw the most pitches by a Giant in four years. When a new front office and new coaching staff took over, it seemed a decent bet a Giants starter would never again throw 118 pitches in a game. But Cueto was that good, that dominant. Kapler agreed with the crowd. He deserved every chance to go the distance. 

"It was as good an outing as I've seen Johnny pitch," Kapler said. 

The Rockies are expected to be one of the worst teams in the big leagues, but still, this was a big step forward for Cueto, and for a rotation that desperately needs a strong No. 2 behind Kevin Gausman. He pumped four-seamers all afternoon, topping out at 94 mph and reaching back for 92 mph in the ninth. He retired the first 13 batters he faced, allowed just four hits, and struck out seven. 

It seemed no coincidence that Cueto did all of this on a day when fans returned to Third and King. He is as great a showman as there is among current MLB pitchers, and he seemed to soak in the applause. It just wasn't the same last year when Cueto would finish an inning, tuck his cap under his arm in a familiar pose, and stride back to the dugout facing nothing but cardboard cutouts. 

"I do feed off the crowd," Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "I like to perform in front of the crowd."

They fed off Cueto, and the Giants seemed to, as well. They always seem to be having a bit more fun when Cueto is pitching this way, and teammates certainly enjoyed a triple-shimmy he threw in for a late strikeout.

"I don't know if he even knows he's going to do it. Once he starts his delivery I think he kind of makes up his mind from there," Crawford said. "He does such a good job of keeping guys off balance and putting balls where he wants. Even if he's shimmying three times or if he quick-pitches, he has a pretty good idea of where that ball is going to go."

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Cueto said later that the move was his plan all along. When it was completed, another zero in the books, he pumped his fist and reached for his cap. As he walked off the field, he stared up at a crowd that was getting its money's worth on the first day back. 

"He really thrives with energy behind him," Kapler said. "He likes to interact during the game with coaches and players and he certainly is a performer. He likes to interact with the fans, as well. I think he was boosted by the fans. I don't think there was any question about that."

 

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