SAN FRANCISCO — Johnny Cueto walked into the clubhouse at 5:10 on Thursday, about two hours before his first pitch.
“I thought I was late,” he said later, smiling.
Not on this day. Cueto and the rest of the Giants were told to arrive at around 5 p.m., two hours or so later than most would normally get to the park. Manager Bruce Bochy wanted his team to relax and get a mental break. As it turned out, most of the Giants were in for a night off anyway.
Cueto went the distance against the Cardinals, throwing 105 pitches in a dominant performance that gave a reprieve to a beleaguered bullpen currently existing without a named closer. He gave up a lead once and then buckled down, retiring the final 17 Cardinals he faced.
The 6-2 win pushed the Giants two games ahead of St. Louis in the Wild Card race and added a half-game to their lead over the idle Mets. Most importantly, the Giants gained a full game on the Dodgers, who lost earlier in the night to the Diamondbacks. The NL West deficit is back to four with 16 to play.
Cueto will face the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He left little doubt about what his mindset will be.
“Every game I pitch or will pitch from now on will be treated like a playoff game,” he said. “We have 16 left.”
If the Giants treat all of them like playoff games, they should be in pretty good shape. This is a room, after all, full of rings, and on Thursday the Giants again looked like a contender. They shook off a three-game sweep by the Padres, the worst series of the year, to play good, clean baseball against a Cardinals team chasing the same goal.
It started with Cueto, who gave up five hits and two runs while striking out seven. He threw his fifth complete game, tying Chris Sale for the Major League lead.
“He really, I thought, got better as he went,” Bochy said. “They chipped away at him but he settled down and got better in the eighth and ninth. I think he smelled it and turned it up.”
Cueto has a tendency to do that, but he might not have gotten a chance without a healthy lead. For once, Bochy did not have to double-switch and play the matchups and scratch and claw for a lead run. Hunter Pence hit a two-run homer early. Buster Posey had four hits. Brandon Belt scored a pair of runs while walking twice. Then there was Denard Span, who was dropped from first to eighth in the order and responded with two hits, including a two-run single in the seventh that gave Cueto a cushion. Span had two total hits in his previous 41 at-bats entering the game.
“He’s a leadoff hitter and sometimes you change things to mix it up,” Bochy said, making it clear that he wasn’t trying to punish Span. “You break it up and maybe take a little bit of pressure off a player. I know it’s been a tough go for him recently but he’s handled it well and he went out and got a couple of big hits.”
Cueto didn’t need the second one, but it certainly didn’t hurt. He sat at 94 mph while cruising through the ninth.
“Every inning I felt a lot better,” Cueto said. “This was my game.”
It was a huge one for the Giants, their biggest win of the year given the date and opponent. It came on a day when players and coaches tried so hard to change the losing vibe. Cory Gearrin cut his long hair. Bochy called off batting practice. Trainers and coaches arrived late, and the training room — a popular hangout spot for all players — was closed until four. Pence, naturally, showed up at 3:50. He said players appreciated Bochy’s directive.
“Sometimes you take a step back and reframe, refresh and regroup,” he said.
It worked so well the Giants will do it again. As players walked out of the clubhouse, a video board displayed the same times for Thursday’s action. No batting practice. Report by 5 p.m.
“We’re not changing anything,” Bochy said.