Giants’ ace is this season’s wild card

This is my Thursday column on Matt Cain:

Matt Cain, “The Man” on the Giants’ pitching staff, their ace, has pitched terribly the first two months of this season.

His 5.45 ERA is fifth-worst in the National League, and he gave up seven earned runs in the third inning of his most recent outing, on the road against the Cardinals. Cain was like a pitching a machine at the batting cage serving up hit after hit.

Is he beginning to fade like Tim Lincecum faded two years ago?

No.

Cain is young – just 28 years old – and he’s a workhorse. But he’s tired. It’s not his fault.

He has pitched 790 innings including the postseason since 2010, carrying the Giants’ rotation which was supposed to be a two-ace rotation, Cain and Lincecum – just like Marichal and Perry, or Koufax and Drysdale. It’s not a two-ace rotation any more. As Lincecum disintegrated, Cain picked up the slack, and opposing teams started paying closer attention to what he does.

“The game plan against Cain has gotten better,” says Shooty Babitt, a scout for the New York Mets and a former second baseman for the Oakland A’s. “Cain has a good fastball. His secondary pitches aren’t spectacular. He needs to hit his spots to be successful.”

Bill Laskey, a former pitcher for the Giants and Giants’ analyst on CSN Bay Area, agrees with Babitt: “Cain is hitting way too much of the plate right now. In the past, he usually hit the target. This year, he seems to have a one-inning doldrums every start, and then he settles down. He’s been inconsistent, just like their whole pitching staff.”

Funny thing is Cain’s fastball hasn’t lost velocity. He’s actually striking out more batters than in the past. Cain appears to be pacing himself because he’s not getting a lot of help from the other starters. Consider this the most obvious theory.

He is like the San Antonio Spurs. He has won championships, he knows he’s great, he can turn his greatness on and off and he knows he needs to play his best down the stretch, meaning September and October.

There is little doubt Cain will carry the Giants down the stretch this season, because he’s a true ace, and that’s what aces do.

What else does an ace do?

An ace, also known as the opening-day pitcher, the guy, the horse, the best pitcher on a staff, the anchor and the stopper can dominate any lineup.

“Ace is a big word,” says Laskey. “An ace is a leader who takes a rotation and puts it on his back. He’s the most knowledgeable pitcher on the staff, the most experienced pitcher on the staff. He talks to his teammates. He’s someone younger players and veterans can talk to and learn from.”

“You can build a staff around an ace,” says Babitt. “You know he’s going to give you 220-plus innings. You can depend on him. He stops losing streaks. He’s a strong guy, and he has plus-stuff.”

In life outside of baseball, ace is always the greatest honor. In poker, an ace is the highest card in the deck. In golf, it’s a hole-in-one. In tennis, it’s whiffing your opponent with your serve. In the air force, it’s the top pilot – a pilot who has shot down at least five enemy planes.

When you think of an ace, which starting pitchers pop into your head?

Babitt: “Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan. Power guys who were dominant.”

Laskey: “Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright and Matt Cain. Cain is a very quiet leader, but he works with the other players.”

It’s nice to know Cain still is an ace and he works well with others, but when will he start pitching like an ace instead of a deuce or a three?

Friday night against the division-leading Diamondbacks would be good. It will be his 13th start of the season, and pitchers usually get in a groove by their 15th, at the latest. Cain is scheduled to face Arizona’s young lefty Patrick Corbin, 9-0 with a 2.06 ERA. An ace.

If Cain wins that game against that pitcher and that team, it will be a big confidence boost for him and for the Giants.

If Cain loses, it’s a bad start to a brutal 10-game road trip against three dangerous teams – the Diamondbacks, Pirates and Braves.

Now is the time for the Giants to become the Giants and for Cain to become Cain. They’re only three games behind Arizona for first place, and their defense has been sloppy – 40 errors – and that hasn’t helped Cain or the other pitchers.

And their pitching has been disappointing – it’s tied with the Padres for the fewest quality starts in the National League. That’s not what you expect from a team built on pitching and defense. And it adds to Cain’s burden, which is already burdensome enough.

And there’s something else. Cain’s demeanor is strange. You’ve seen him. He’s placid. What’s with that?

I’m talking to you, Matt. You set the tone for the staff. Get angry. Yell or break a bat or throw your helmet against a wall. Show you care. The other 24 Giants are studying you.

An ace shouldn’t be nonchalant when he’s getting creamed, even if it’s only June.

 

Grant Cohn writes two sports columns per week for the Press Democrat’s website. He also writes the “Inside the 49ers” blog. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.

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