Matt Cain

Camp observations: Bruce Bochy hopes to see better bunting from pitchers

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USATSI

Camp observations: Bruce Bochy hopes to see better bunting from pitchers

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On the second day, there was rain. 

The Giants weren’t washed out, but they were a little limited in terms of what they could do when the skies opened up Thursday morning. Still, a second group of pitchers got off the bullpen mounds and practiced pickoffs, and Buster Posey smacked a long homer before batting practice was cut short. 

This was the day Johnny Cueto arrived, and he was the focus of the main story today. Here are some other observations … 

Fundamentals

There’s no way to really quantify how a team’s bunting skills match up historically, but I’ll say this. The 2018 Giants were by far the worst bunters I’ve seen in my seven years on the beat, and the coaching staff was appalled at points.

“There were times when it was ugly, for lack of a better word,” manager Bruce Bochy said Thursday. 

There’s always an emphasis on fundamentals in spring training, and Bochy went straight to bunting when asked what he’s focused on. The good news, he said, is that most of his pitchers had good form by the end of last season. Now it’s about getting more reps. 

“It’s ‘Outliers.’ Get 10,000 reps and you get pretty good at something,” Bochy said. 

The Giants ranked 10th in the NL in bunts last season, but given how many times Bochy asked for them, they should have been much higher. Pitchers just had a hard time getting it down. Bochy hopes this is one area where the staff is much-improved in 2019. 

More catching depth 

You won’t sell any season tickets talking about the minor league depth you’re building, but the Giants have been crushed by injuries the last couple of seasons, and that’s exposed the lack of serviceable big league talent at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. 

A lot of these minor moves you see have been meant to address that, and team officials feel much better about the state of a Triple-A roster that will feed the big league one. That will trickle down to Double-A, too, especially with the catchers. 

Hamlet Marte is someone you probably haven’t heard of, but the Giants were excited to get the young catcher, with Farhan Zaidi bringing him over from a Dodgers organization that’s loaded with minor league catching. Marte, 25, was a minor league free agent and is slated to start the season as Double-A Richmond’s everyday catcher. Bochy called him “intriguing.”

Marte has a .275/.341/.443 slash line in the minors and had a .833 OPS with 12 homers in High-A ball last year. 

“Farhan said he did a great job over there,” Bochy said. “He really made a lot of improvements last year with his on-base (skills) and having quality at-bats." 

You always need more catching, and the Giants are all of a sudden pretty deep there. 

[RELATED: Could the Giants really carry three catchers?]

Familiar faces

Dave Righetti stopped by Scottsdale Stadium on Thursday and spent some time chatting with Bochy behind the cage. In a few weeks, there will be plenty of familiar faces. The Giants love to bring former players back as guest instructors, and Bochy said all of the past ones will be back except for Tim Hudson and Jeff Kent, who have scheduling issues. There are two more Bochy would like to see, too. He mentioned Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. 

“Cain, Lincecum, they’ve done so much for the organization and me,” Bochy said. “I’d always love them here.”

Cain lives in the Phoenix area and snuck into the clubhouse last spring. Lincecum is harder to find, but Bochy tried. He reached out when the Giants were in Seattle last summer but Lincecum was out of town. 

Matt Cain's Willie McCovey connection left impression for a lifetime

Matt Cain's Willie McCovey connection left impression for a lifetime

Matt Cain is the epitome of a Forever Giant. He spent his entire 13-year career wearing the orange and black -- quite a feat in today’s game. He earned countless accolades while being at the center of magnificent moments time and time again during his Giants tenure.

Matt’s consistency in performance and personality always made him seem wise beyond his years. And his stoic yet professional demeanor always resembled players of a former era.

Players like Willie McCovey.

Since Matt is a former Willie Mac Award winner, I thought he’d be the perfect person to share what another Forever Giant meant to him personally and to his teammates. It helps that Matt now lives in the same town as I do, and so over a cup of coffee, he recently told me how the Hall of Famer known as Stretch -- who died last week at age 80 -- impacted him as a player and a man.

Matt was drafted by the Giants out of high school in 2002, and as a young kid, he was plucked out of his parents’ home. He found a little piece of comfort when he realized he and McCovey both hailed from Alabama.

“It was brought up,” Matt said. “He was from southern, southern Alabama (in Mobile). I was born in Dothan and grew up in Birmingham.

“We would exchange stories and try to figure out where everything was, but I was still very young (when I lived in Alabama), and my geography wasn’t great. But we would try to put all the pieces together. It came up every once in awhile.”

I was curious about Matt’s initial thoughts when he first met Willie McCovey. What kind of presence did this great Giant have, and what kind of impression did he make?

“You’re in awe at first because you’ve learned what he did over his career,” Matt said. “And then that fades, and you realize he’s just a genuine person who cared about his teammates and the teammates that followed him. He took care of those guys.

“He was really the picture perfect Forever Giant. He’s what really all of us have lived up to. You saw what he did for the team as an ambassador throughout the years, even when he was done playing. His numbers and everything explain him on the field, but it’s more of getting to know him on a different level being in the clubhouse, having some personal time with him, seeing him as a true human.”

[RELATED: Amy G remembers McCovey as a treasure of a person]

Being so young when he was drafted, Matt didn’t have a lot of time to expand his knowledge of former pro players before he actually became one. His day consisted of playing baseball, not studying the history of it. But when he got the call from the Giants, his curiosity about who else had been with this organization was piqued, and he sought out well-known individuals to fill in any blanks about just how storied this franchise and its Hall of Famers were.

“This was back when we had the flip phones and we weren’t as in tune with what was going on Internet-wise,” Matt said. “A lot of it was word of mouth, talking with Will Clark and Rags (Dave Righetti), and hearing Felipe (Alou) and all these guys just talk about what these Hall of Famers did and what Willie brought to the team.

“It was word of mouth, which was so much fun, like talking with (Jim) Davenport -- that was fun for me, and I’ve always enjoyed learning about people through stories because they always get skewed a little bit -- a little better, a little worse -- but it’s always fun to be able to hear stories about guys and talk about them, and I really enjoyed learning about all the Hall of Famers, but especially Willie McCovey.”

The access to Giants Hall of Famers always has been impressive. Rookies learn to relish it, while veterans who come to San Francisco via trades or other acquisitions often find themselves stammering over the Hall of Famers’ presence. It’s something that sets the Giants organization apart, and Cain always greatly appreciated it in his playing days.

“McCovey would always come in, and he was always willing to ask questions. He was one of the guys,” he said. “You would talk with him, and it wasn’t so much ‘what I did’ and what was going on ‘back in the day’ that we can tend to hear about, and I’ll end up doing it too, but he would talk to you about what guys are thinking or what’s going on with the team. He was always trying to keep up to date with the game.

“He did a great job of relating to everybody and not just making it a sideshow of himself. That’s what everybody loved about Willie.”

McCovey was known for attending every Giants home game, unless an ailment kept him away. This was noticed and respected. When Willie spoke, Matt listened.

“For a guy to actually see what was going on day in and day out. Heck, he might have been there more than we were!” Matt said. “He was always there. He knew what was going on. It wasn’t take in a game or two, and all of a sudden dissect the whole team – ‘That’s what’s wrong with the team,’ or, ‘That’s what’s great about the team.’ He understood what was going on for the whole 162 games.

“There was something about his voice, something about the way he spoke and articulated to everyone. He earned that, and he gathered that, and he had one of those voices that when he spoke, everyone listened and really soaked it up.”

[RELATED: Kruk and Kuip appreciate the "gentle Giant"]

Matt and I talked about the numerous times McCovey made himself available to the media. McCovey set an example to the players who came after him.

“That’s so impressive about him. If he said no, it wasn’t very often,” Matt said. “… It takes a lot of energy to say yes when you have a lot of people pulling at you, and I can’t even imagine what he had, being the status that he was, so for him to say yes and a handful of times say no, that’s draining, and that says a lot about his personality.”

Cain and McCovey forever will be connected, not just as Giants but in name. Matt was the 2009 Willie Mac Award recipient, and he confirmed my assumptions that this honor means more to Giants players than all the other hardware they play for in the season.

“Personally, it was something that is up there with any of the rings that we have or any All-Star Game or any highlight that I’ve ever had,” he said. “To know your teammates and your coaches and everybody respected you and what you did for them and the way you carried yourself as an athlete and a professional, that was something that meant a lot to me and something I’ll always take away.

“It was mentioned to me as a young guy. Dave Roberts said, there are a lot of things that you can be given in this game. One of the biggest, when you’re done and walk away, is to have the respect of everybody in the clubhouse. To be honored that way with the award solidifies that. It’s something that can’t be taken away from you. You can’t quit on it, you need to keep carrying it, but it means you were doing things the right way.”

And then we joked that we kind of rooted for Dave Roberts and ONLY Dave during the Dodgers-Red Sox World Series.

Lastly, I wanted to know, beyond a tangible connection to McCovey having won the award, what stays with Matt about Willie, whose life will be celebrated Thursday at AT&T Park.

“His presence. The way he carried himself. The way he took over a room when he spoke. I’ve always been impressed with people who could walk into a room and chat with anyone and hold court and get people to listen because what they said, it was meaningful and it was coming from a good place.”

POLL: Giants Memorable Moments -- Cain's Perfect Game vs 2014 NLCS Game 3

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POLL: Giants Memorable Moments -- Cain's Perfect Game vs 2014 NLCS Game 3

PROGRAMMING NOTE: NBC Sports Bay Area is looking back at the Giants' 60 Memorable Moments since the franchise moved from New York to San Francisco. Tune into Giants Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m. to see the next two moments you can vote on! Then, after the Giants and Astros conclude, tune into Postgame Live to see which moment will move on.

1. Matt Cain's Perfect Game in 2012 (11-time winner -- Defeated Jeffrey 'HacMan' Leonard's four home runs in the 1987 NLCS)

(From Matt Cain - Giants Pitcher, 2005-2017)

The Perfect Game was one of the most memorable nights of my playing career. 

I had always dreamed of throwing a no-hitter. I had come so close so many times throughout my career and in my younger years, but never had one. 

The ballpark was so electric that night. We had the TaylorMade guys out hitting golf balls. Dustin Johnson hitting monster drives into McCovey Cove, and I snuck one good swing in there as well. 

Pretty surreal day. I still think back to all the plays and pitches during that game. To have every single player on the same wave length and all realizing what was unfolding is truly something special. Everyone likes to say I pitched a perfect game and I get the credit for it but I’m in debt to everyone of the guys who made a play behind me , one that still doesn’t make sense in right center field, and I owe the most to the guy who called 125 perfect pitches behind the plate. 

Thanks to all the fans that have come up to me and shared there story about that night. So fun to hear them all!!

VS.

2. Giants win 2014 NLCS Game 3 over St. Louis thanks to Gregor Blanco's game-winning bunt single

In the postseason, the Giants often replace the RBI with the RTI. Runs Thrown In, as Tim Flannery famously called them, and one of the most memorable ones came in Game 3 of a thrilling 2014 NLCS.

With no outs and two on in the bottom of the 10th inning, Gregor Blanco put a bunt down and St. Louis Cardinals reliever Randy Choate whipped the ball down the first base line. Brandon Crawford jogged home to give the Giants a 5-4 win.

"Rocks and slingshots, man," Flannery said later, standing in the joyous home clubhouse. "We can score without hits. We've proven that."

They scored with hits that game, too. Travis Ishikawa's three-run double off John Lackey in the first gave the Giants a 4-0 lead, but the Cardinals chipped away off Tim Hudson, eventually tying the game. Choate's error ended it in extra innings, and two days later, Ishikawa would again be in the spotlight, hitting a three-run walk-off homer in Game 5 to send the Giants to the World Series. There was nothing flukey about that one. 

POLL: