There was just something different.
All season Matt Cain has been better than good. On April 13th in his 2nd start of the season Cain allowed just 1 hit as he threw a complete game shutout with 11 K’s against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his next start, April 18th against the Phillies, he went 9 shutout innings giving up just 2 hits and out-dueling Cliff Lee. Against Milwaukee on May 6th he struck out 10 Brewers while giving up just 2 runs. Coming into play Wednesday Cain was in the midst of his best season as a professional: 7-2, 2.41 ERA, 1 CG SHO, 86 IP, 65 H, 16 BB (1 IBB), 82 K, 5.13 K:BB, 8.6 K/9, 148 ERA+, .942 WHIP. Excluding the 7 starts Cain had in 2005 at age 20, the ERA, ERA+, K:BB, K/9, and WHIP all represent careers highs, and the WHIP was tops in baseball. After a 14 K perfect game those numbers will only get better.
Cain’s been dominant in 2012, and easily one of the best pitchers in baseball. But even as the game was unfolding all who witnessed it could sense that there was just something different about his start against the Astros on Wednesday night.
By the end of the 3rd inning the Giants had a 7-0 and Cain had racked up 5 K’s without allowing a baserunner. With the way Cain has pitched in 2012 and the depth the Giants have in the bullpen the game was, for all intents and purposes, over. At that point the only questions were how many K’s Cain would end up with and whether he would finish with a CG SHO.
But Cain just kept cruising. 2 more K’s in the 4th as he retired the side and the Giants made it 8-0. Another pair of K’s in the 5th. Cain even singled to lead off the bottom of the 5th and scored on Gregor Blanco’s 2 run HR that wasn’t even the most memorable instance of Blanco picking up Cain. As Cain headed to the mound for the top of the 6th he had a 10 run lead, 9 K’s, and was 1-for-2 at the plate with a run scored and a sacrifice. Oh yeah, and he hadn’t allowed an Astros player to reach base.
You hear a lot of people complain about the general makeup of the crowds at AT&T these days, that the Giants have priced out the real fans, the ones who braved all those frigid nights at Candlestick and watch or listen to every game. They say it’s a corporate crowd filled with Panda hats and people more interested in their iPhones than what’s happening on the field. There may be a lot of truth to those complaints but at least for one night AT&T has filled with one of the best baseball crowds in recent memory. The fans at the yard sensed something special was happening and got involved, cheering for every out and standing for seemingly every 2 strike count. This was a throwback crowd, feeding off the performance of Cain and the Giants while Cain and the Giants fed off of them. It was a display of synergy that signifies a special moment in sports.
After Brian Bogusevic led off the 6th with another K, this one looking, Chris Snyder stepped to the plate and hammered a ball to deep left field. Off the bat it looked like it was gone and would mark the end of the perfect game, no hitter, and shutout. Melky Cabrera went all the way to the wall and, as if the ball had been blown back towards the field by the breath God, was able to make the catch. Cain struck out Brian Bixler swinging as the crowd roared its approval and it was on to the 7th.
With the score 10-0 and Cain chasing history, Bruce Bochy decided the time was right to make his defensive changes. Emmanuel Burriss had come in for Ryan Theriot at 2B in the 6th, and in the 7th Brandon Crawford came in at SS while Joaquin Arias shifted to 3B and Pablo Sandoval came out of the game. It would be up to Cain to complete a perfect game, but Bochy was going to give him the best possible chance at a no-hitter.
There’s more than a little randomness to any no-hitter or perfect game no matter how dominant the pitcher on the mound may be (and make no mistake: Cain was utterly dominating the Astros in this game). Ground balls don’t find holes. Fly balls don’t find gaps. Line drives don’t pass just out of reach. Every no-hitter or perfect game has a memorable, miracle defensive play that keeps it intact. Coming into the 7th the crowd at the ballpark and the fans watching on tv or listening on radio felt like that play was Melky’s catch at the wall in the 6th but they were all wrong. Leading off the 7th Jordan Schafer hit a ball to right center that had gap written all over it, and once again it seemed like divine intervention stepped in. With Gregor Blanco in the lineup the Giants field at least 2 center fielders and the speedy Blanco, playing RF, raced towards center, dove, and somehow made the catch at the edge of the warning track. As unbelievable as Cain was on this night Gregor Blanco laying out to make the catch may very well be the lasting image from the 22nd perfect game in MLB history. Knowing Matt Cain he’d be just fine with that.
From there it was mostly smooth sailing for Cain. He struck out Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie to end the 7th, picked up another K in the 8th, and finished off the night with a foul out, a fly out, and a ground out in the 9th. When Arias threw out pinch hitter Jason Castro for the final out the Giants stormed out of the dugout to mob Cain on the mound as the crowd serenaded Cain with their congratulations. The Giants franchise has been around for 128 years and features numerous icons, legends, and Hall of Famers, but until Wednesday night no Giants pitcher had ever completed a perfect game.
How good was Matt Cain in this game? His 14 K’s, a career high, match a guy named Sandy Koufax for the most in a perfect game. According to Bill James’ Game Score Cain’s perfect game scored 101, tied for the 2nd highest ever since 1920 with Koufax’s 14 K perfect game in 1965 and a Nolan Ryan’s 16 K no-hitter in 1991. With a score of 105 Kerry Wood’s epic 20 K 1 hitter from 1998 is the only game that scores higher.
Since Tim Lincecum came into the league he’s been the national face of the Giants and their unbelievable pitching staff but as he continues to struggle in 2012, and after Cain pitched the franchise’s 1st perfect game, that may be changing. Those who follow the Giants know both how good Cain has always been and how important his consistency is to the Giants. He’s the longest tenured Giant and if it wasn’t already clear, Cain is the rock and the leader not just of this staff but of this team.
Cain may not have another game in his life like he did Wednesday night, but if he keeps pitching as he has so far in 2012 Giants fans may be treated to a return of his playoff fro.
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