SAN FRANCISCO — Hunter Pence stepped into the cage during batting practice, put down a bunt, and then took two light swings. He felt pain in his right hamstring, and he shook his head at coaches and walked toward the clubhouse to get more treatment.
Five hours later, Pence talked his way onto the field and walked off the Padres in one of the strangest ways possible.
Pence drove in the only run Monday night and clinched a shutout for Johnny Cueto when he hit a towering two-out pop-up in the bottom of the ninth that dropped in front of charging right fielder Matt Kemp and kicked away far enough for Brandon Belt to race home from first.
“That was definitely a bloop,” Pence said. “It was a well-place hit for the time.”
Pence flashed a wide smile as he eased into second base. The dugout exploded. Cueto, who was looking at a brutal no-decision, tumbled over the rail to celebrate his third complete game in three starts against the Padres this season.
“It was euphoria,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “To get Johnny the win after that effort, that’s what they were all happy about. What a game he threw.”
It’s rare that a starting pitcher isn’t on the field at the end of his own complete game, but Cueto didn’t mind. His teammates were thrilled they were able to reward a newcomer who has given the Giants an absolute ace in the No. 2 slot in the rotation. Cueto is the first Giant to win seven of his first 10 starts since Jason Schmidt in 2004. He’s the first since Atlee Hammaker in 1983 to threw three complete games against one opponent. He gave the Giants back-to-back 1-0 wins for the first time in 36 years.
Pence, his right leg wrapped in ice, listed off a series of positives when asked about Cueto: Spirited, competitive, fun, has a good attitude, knowledgable.
“His results have been remarkable, as advertised,” Pence said.
Long before his mad dash home, Belt found himself standing at first and remembering how much he used to hate facing Cueto when he was in Cincinnati.
“It’s fun playing behind him,” he said. “It’s fun watching him do what he does.”
The Padres are still stuck on the other side, and in three matchups this season they’ve been completely overmatched. Cueto threw a shutout at AT&T Park on April 26 and allowed just one run on four hits last week at Petco Park. On Monday he gave up just two hits and saved his best pitch for the biggest moment. With two on and two down in the eighth, Cueto threw a perfect 3-2 fastball on the inside corner to freeze Yangervis Solarte. He then breezed through the ninth.
Cueto pitched the ninth with Belt in left field, the result of Angel Pagan coming up lame while running to first in the bottom of the eighth. Pagan, who twice has missed time with a left hamstring strain, will have an MRI on Monday and Bochy indicated he could be placed on the DL this time.
“There is some concern,” Bochy said.
When Pagan couldn’t go back out for the ninth, Belt was called back to the dugout and told to shift over. He has played a lot of outfield in past years but this season has been a rock at first, so he was scrambling for a moment. Javier Lopez, a Gold Glover in batting practice, raced back to the clubhouse to grab his outfield glove and get it to Belt.
The Giants were short in part because of Pence's injury, but he spent the evening keeping his hamstring warm and tracking pitches in the cage. Pence saw that a left-hander was entering for the Padres and Bochy was sending three straight lefties to the plate. He approached Bochy.
“Hey, I’m good to go,” Pence told his manager.
Bochy had watched Pence walk out of the cage during batting practice. He wanted to be cautious.
“I really wasn’t planning on using him, to be honest,” Bochy said. “He was pretty adamant that he felt better and could give us swings. I didn’t want to use (backup catcher Trevor) Brown and I had Bum ready. (Pence) assured us he could get swings off.”
Given the green light, Pence hustled back to the small room behind the dugout and watched Brad Hand from there. He felt he could get a better scouting report off the television. In the meantime, the Padres, who generally have shifted Giants hitters well, made a scouting mistake. Kemp moved into a no-doubles defense as Pence walked up to the plate, with the Padres apparently oblivious to the fact that Pence was hurt and had not taken full swings all day.
Pence popped up to shallow right and Kemp couldn’t make up all that ground. His infielders did him no favors, and as the ball kicked away, Belt sped for home.
“Right in front of third base I saw Roberto (Kelly) slinging the arm so I went on,” Belt said. “I guess there’s always a chance. You think there’s always a chance, that’s why you go. You know, you see so many balls like that and you think it’s routine.
“But you never know.”