Start with the Losing: A Tribute to Matt Cain

On April 9, 2007, 22-year-old Matt Cain started a game against the San Diego Padres.

For almost two years now, Cain had worn a Giants uniform, and on this particular day it was the road uniform — gray in color with black and orange accents, and “SAN FRANCISCO” written across the front. Barely of legal drinking age, he was already one of the best in the world at his profession. Before the game started Cain took his warm-up throws from the mound, repeating over and over the motion that allowed him to fling a baseball, with accuracy, faster than most people drive on I-5. See him: He gets the ball from the catcher. He holds it in his glove. He pauses. He turns his left shoulder forward, he rocks back, and then all at once the ball pours out of his hand — yes, his profession is throwing a ball, but there is something compelling about watching a person do the thing they are best at.

The young Cain, with his broad shoulders, thick neck, and confident bearing, is most certainly compelling. This, you feel as you watch him, is a man who will do great things in his sport and lead his teammates to victory. You are certain of it, and he is too.

In 2007, Cain is baby-faced with the same strawberry blond hair he has today. He is powerfully built, but his body is not quite as thick as it would become in later years. His skills are still developing. He still has untapped potential. He can be wild — in 2007 he would lead the National League in wild pitches and hit five batters — but he is already very close to being truly great.

The umpire gave the sign to start the game, and Cain got off to a rough start. After two fly ball outs, he walked three straight Padres to load the bases. But he fought through it — he got Khalil Greene to fly out to center, and the Padres did not score. From then on, it was smooth sailing for Cain. Again and again the Padres came to bat, and again and again they went back to the dugout fuming after launching a fastball that wasn’t quite where they thought it would be high into the air only for the ball to die and land in the glove of a Giants defender. Four innings, five innings, six, and still the Padres had no base hits. A tiring Cain finally gave up a double in the bottom of the 7th and then walked the next batter. But he pitched out of the two-on, no-out jam, only surrendering one run on a sacrifice fly. Cain was pulled after the 7th having pitched heroically. Despite some control issues (four walks and one hit batsman), he went 7 innings and put the struggling Giants in position to win.

The Giants lost, 1–0.

Eight days later Cain took the ball and climbed the mound again, this time in Denver. The thin air of Colorado makes the spacious Coors Field into what baseball people call a “bandbox,” or a tiny stadium where home runs are easy, and the stadium has made fools of many a pitcher. But Cain was unfazed by the way his breaking balls weren’t breaking right or the way the ball flew off the bat when batters made contact because of the thin air. He lasted 7 innings, struck out 7, only allowed 5 Colorado players to reach base, and left the mound without allowing a single run.

The Giants lost, 5–3.

Five days later Cain once again took the mound to face the Arizona Diamondbacks at home in San Francisco. By now he knew what he had to do to get a win. He pitched so well that manager Bruce Bochy had no choice but to leave him in for the whole game. Cain pitched an efficient 9 innings, allowing 3 hits and a run.

The Giants won, 2–1.

Six days later Cain faced the Diamondbacks in their home territory, in Arizona. He couldn’t last the whole 9 innings, but he pitched like an ace: 6 innings, 1 hit, 1 run.

The Giants lost, 5–4.

By the end of April Cain had an earned run average (ERA) of 1.54, one of the best in the league. But his win-loss record was just 1–1, and the Giants had gone 1–4 in his starts. On average, they had scored 2.4 runs per game to back him up. By the end of the 2007 season, the precocious Cain had an ERA of 3.65 — not quite superstar level, but incredible for a pitcher his age, and the best ERA of the Giants’ starting pitchers. He pitched 200 innings total, the only Giants pitcher to reach that mark, and started 32 games.

Officially, he received credit for 7 wins and 16 losses. Those 16 losses led the team.

The Giants lost 91 games and missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.

On April 1, 2008, Matt Cain started a game in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. He pitched 5 and 2/3 innings and gave up zero runs.

The Giants lost, 3–2…

It is important to start with the losing when discussing Matt Cain. It is important to start with the disappointment, with the seemingly pointless expenditure of energy, with the “Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill only for it to roll back down again” phase of his career. It is important to start with Cain being excellent while his teammates let him down again and again, with the baseball demons cursing him and entrapping him at every turn while he does all he can to fight them off.

This is a trope, especially in sports. One of the oldest narrative forms is the story of the hero who struggles and loses and suffers before achieving glory. Sports have taken this narrative form and turned it into a cliche — think Michael Jordan losing to the Pistons four years in a row, or Joe Montana’s drive, or any sports movie ever made. Most headliner professional wrestling matches go like this: The hero, or “face,” starts off strong but quickly begins losing the match to the villain, who is called the “heel.” Time and again the face is put into impossible situations and just barely manages to stave off defeat through sheer will and effort. (Meanwhile the heel cheats, taunts the crowd, and bullies the referee.) Finally the tide turns, the face gains the advantage, and the heel is defeated thanks to the face’s perseverance and high character.

So, yeah, I’d like to avoid all that by quickly skipping ahead and getting to the most obvious facts of Cain’s career: He won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014; he pitched especially heroically in the 2010 playoffs by not allowing any runs at all; he made the All-Star team 3 times; he pitched a perfect game in 2012; he grossed well over $130 million by the time his career ended.

Still, it is important to start with the losing because Cain became famous — famous — for losing in spite of his own brilliant performances. Time and again he pitched excellently, and the Giants lost 1–0, or 2–1, or 3–2, or he pitched a 9-inning shutout only for the game to go into extras, for the manager to take the ball out of his hands, and for the Giants to lose again.

The losing was not something Cain could control. It was beyond him. There were forces aligned against him that he could never hope to overcome on his own. For the first 5 years of his major league career he climbed the mound every five days facing a paradox: His efforts, no matter how brilliant, were not going to bring him any closer to his goal.

Modern-day baseball fans appreciate that judging a pitcher by the wins and losses credited to him is silly; a pitcher cannot control what his 24 teammates do in a game, and he cannot control what the other team does once he’s pulled out of the game and the bullpen takes over for him. And on one level, every pitcher understands that too.

But on another level, pitchers really want to win the damn baseball game.

Anyone who has played organized sports above the middle-school level knows what it feels like to lose a game. It’s a hollow, dull feeling. It makes you numb. It wrecks your day, or even your week. Now imagine that winning sports games is your job. You are paid money specifically because of your ability to help teams win games, and you’ve been good at that your whole life. Imagine that, no matter what you do, your team keeps losing, every time you pitch…

Listen to the postgame interviews. The pitchers still know their win-loss records.

But Cain went out there, no matter what, to pitch like an ace and do his job. And he kept doing it, and kept doing it, and kept doing it…

Cain’s arm snaps forward as he releases the pitch.

Matt Cain’s windup is slow and quick at the same time. Unlike his longtime teammate Tim Lincecum, whose stride exceeded his height, Cain’s stride is relatively short. His motion is a lot of upper body, his shoulders swinging and his arm stretching back and then snapping forward like a catapult as his right shoulder rotates back to front. His delivery is almost uncomfortable to watch. It does not look graceful or even particularly efficient. It is like watching someone split wood with an axe. The wood chips fly — the logs split — the axe rises up again — sweat drips down the axeman’s face… You imagine that Cain’s internal monologue is something like “aaaand…THROW! and…THROW! and…THROW!”

But then you watch where the pitches end up, and what they do when they get there, and you see the craft and finesse he is applying. You thought you were watching a lumberjack, or a blacksmith. But Cain is a finish carpenter, a silversmith.

Matt Cain threw hard, but he was not a strikeout pitcher. He didn’t have a 12–6 curveball (which means the ball drops down like it’s going from the 12 to the 6 on a clock) or a 98-mph fastball (self-explanatory) or a deceptive delivery (a throwing motion that makes hitters confused about where the pitch is coming from). He just threw balls at the strike zone and dared batters to make solid contact. Most of the time, they couldn’t, and they flew out to center or grounded out to short. Sometimes they could, and that’s when he would give up runs. But not a lot of runs.

Cain’s fastball had natural movement to it. This meant that, because of the way he held and released the ball, it moved side-to-side slightly as it flew through the air. When Cain aimed his fastball properly, batters would swing and find that the ball was not where they expected it to be, and either they would swing and miss or they would swing and the ball would hit the end of the bat instead of the “sweet spot” on the barrel of the bat. Then the ball would fly softly through the air and into an outfielder’s glove for an out.

Cain kept hitters off-balance with his placement of the ball, his location, as well. As he matured as a pitcher, he gained the ability to hit the edge of the strike zone up high, down low, and on either side of home plate. He would pick up strike calls and get ahead in the count, maintaining the advantage over the hitter.

A fastball is great and all, but major league hitters will time it if a pitcher does not have offspeed stuff — curveballs, changeups, sliders, and so on. Cain had excellent offspeed pitches and used them in unorthodox ways. He became a master of what Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow termed “stealing” first strikes. A batter would come to the plate primed for a fastball on the first pitch — usually a pitcher will lead with a fastball, since it’s the easiest pitch to locate properly and can set up the offspeed stuff once a hitter is timed to it — and Cain would instead drop a slow curveball right into the strike zone for strike 1.

Cain kept hitters uncomfortable and uncertain, and that, just as much as the movement on his fastball, was why he was able to do what is called “pitching to contact” so successfully. Most pitchers, especially nowadays, pitch to strike men out. They want hitters to swing and miss — three times in a row if possible. Cain wanted hitters to swing and connect. He wanted the soft fly ball to left-center, the pop fly on the infield, the ground ball to short, the fly ball to the warning track that never had a real chance of going out, and he believed he could get hitters to do that consistently instead of hitting the ball up the middle or over the fence.

The baseball media is now dominated by the stat heads, and for years Cain confounded the stat heads because pitchers who allow as many fly balls as he did weren’t supposed to be good. Some of those fly balls were supposed to turn into doubles, triples, and home runs. And for Cain, some of them did, but not nearly as many as the projections and statistical models predicted. He was an anomaly. He was an outlier. He screwed up otherwise perfectly normal bar graphs and bell curves. And he just kept on doing it year after year, long past the point where it made any statistical sense.

This is not to say that Cain couldn’t strike people out. He could, and he could do it quite easily in fact. But I would guess he understood, or else his pitching coach understood, that strikeout pitchers expend more energy to get their outs since every out takes at least 3 pitches — and after all, one out is just one out. A shallow fly ball and a strikeout both kill one-third of an inning, but only one of them can come on the first pitch. When necessary, for instance with the bases loaded and nobody out, Cain could “bear down” and focus on striking out the batter, and the velocity on his fastball would jump from 91 to 94 mph. But he didn’t feel the need to do that every time.

By the end of his career, Cain had compiled 1,694 strikeouts, an impressive total. But he never got 200 strikeouts in a season — the benchmark for the elite strikeout artists. And he didn’t need to.

My favorite mental image of Matt Cain is not from a specific game, because it happened so many times. My favorite image is this: He gets behind in the count 2–0 and then throws a perfect fastball to the bottom of the strike zone, and the batter swings and hits a soft ground ball to the shortstop.

In Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series Matt Cain was in trouble, and that meant the Giants were in trouble. A few minutes earlier Buster Posey had hit a grand slam to put the Giants ahead. But now the Cincinnati Reds had put two men on base in the bottom of the 6th inning, and there were no outs. Cain was laboring in the humid Midwestern day. At the plate was Ryan Hanigan, who represented the tying run, and he was putting up a fight. After 7 pitches the at-bat still had no outcome, and the count was 3 balls and 2 strikes. Another ball meant a walk, and the bases would be loaded with nobody out; another strike in the wrong place could result in a base hit and one or more runs scoring.

But the Reds were stressed out too. They were down by 3 runs, and the winner of the game would go to the next round and play for the pennant, while the loser would go home. They were staring down elimination. Reds manager Dusty Baker decided to try to make the most of the situation. He tapped his face, his head, his chest a few times, and the Reds coaches on the field understood the signal and passed it along to the baserunners and the batter: Baker had put on a hit-and-run play. Now, the idea of a “hit-and-run” play is that the baserunners start running right as the pitch is thrown so that they have a head start when the batter makes contact. Oh, and the batter is supposed to make contact. And he’s definitely supposed to swing.

Cain threw a beautiful pitch, a deceptive fastball that hit the very bottom of the strike zone. The pitch fooled Hanigan so completely that he didn’t swing. The bat stayed on his shoulder as the umpire called strike 3. Meanwhile the runners, as ordered by their manager, were on their way to second and third base respectively, but Cain’s pitch was so perfect that Buster Posey had time to stand up, shuffle closer to third base, check that his shoes were tied, and call his mother before throwing the runner out at third by a good 5 feet.

It was an utter disaster for the Reds — two outs on one pitch — and from a two-on, no-out situation Cain had created a one-on, two-out situation. Cain pumped his fist and yelled triumphantly. On the air the analysts asked why, if it was a hit-and-run play, the batter didn’t swing?

That pitch was so Matt Cain. The big pitch in the big moment. Facing disaster and being unfazed by it. It was the face turning the tide of the match and pinning the heel for good (incidentally, the opposing pitcher that day was Mat Latos, who was basically a wrestling heel as far as Giants fans were concerned; he loved to publicly bash the Giants).

Cain started 3 more games for the Giants in the 2012 playoffs, including the final game of the World Series. By the time he was done, 2012 was by any measure the peak of his career. In one year he threw a perfect game, started the All-Star game, and pitched in 3 series-deciding games in the playoffs, all of which the Giants won.

He didn’t know he was already finished as a superstar pitcher. None of us did.

The last time I saw Matt Cain pitch live and in person was on August 7, 2017 in a game against the Chicago Cubs. I sat in section 327, high above the field and closer to the left fielder than the third baseman. Ahead of me a family spoke Canadian French and asked me in English what the “LOB” statistic on the Jumbotron meant; behind me a family cracked jokes and cheered loudly for Pablo Sandoval in Spanish.

Matt Cain, 32 years old, came into the game in the 7th inning in relief of Matt Moore, who had started the game. Moore had control issues that game — 1 hit batsman and 3 wild pitches! — and pitched poorly, and the Giants were behind 5–2 already. Cain strolled over the baseline and up to the mound after throwing his warm-up pitches off to the side in the bullpen. He still moved the same way. His face was the same familiar face, though it was not quite a baby face anymore — it was a face that had mileage on it. His body had thickened, especially in the thighs, hips, and stomach. Once the unquestioned ace of the Giants’ pitching staff, he was now relegated to mop-up duty in blowout losses — the result of years of struggling with declining skills and injuries.

Time, of course, is the real heel and always will be. Time caught up with Matt Cain more quickly than anyone thought possible. In 2013, coming off the best season of his career, Cain failed to pitch 200 innings for the first time since 2006 — when he was 21 and not strong enough to carry such a workload. Injuries forced him to miss three starts and limited his effectiveness when he did pitch. And in 2014, 2015, and 2016, further injuries hampered his attempts to come back. He was always coming back, always just about to get his sharpness again, and then tweaking something or pulling something or breaking something and going back to square 1. He was dealing with the normal effects of aging, too. Once a power pitcher, his fastball didn’t touch 90 mph anymore. The ball didn’t go where he wanted it to go quite as often. The curveballs didn’t curve anymore — instead they hung up in the air, floating in slowly towards the plate for a new generation of home run hitters to smack the snot out of them. His ERA ballooned to unthinkable levels. And watching him, you could see the decline — for a few pitches, or even for an inning or two, he would get the popups and fly balls and easy outs that he got in his mid-20s. But then he would leave a dozen pitches right in the middle of the strike zone, and the batters would hit them all over the park, and he would exit the game having surrendered half a dozen runs, and you would ask yourself what happened to Matt Cain…

From my game scorecard. It may not match the official box score exactly because I tend to give out errors more freely than official scorers. Especially to Pablo Sandoval.

But on this particular night, he was Matt Cain again. He gritted his way through 3 innings, pitching through walks and hits and bad defense, and he didn’t allow a single run. With every out he was giving the Giants another chance, another chance, another chance… And with every out I thought to myself, “They should pull him now and let him quit while he’s ahead.” Nerd that I am, I wanted him to lower his ERA a few points so that his statistics would look more like the statistics of the pitcher I’d rooted for over the years, and I was terrified he would implode and surrender a thousand runs and drive his ERA up to even more unthinkable heights. But Bochy kept sending him out there, and he kept getting outs, and he kept going.

If the Giants had come back to win that game, Cain’s career win-loss record would now be 105–118, not 104–118. Lord knows Cain deserved a few more wins like that. But they didn’t come back, because the 2017 Giants were bad and the 2017 Cubs are good.

Cain warms up for his debut back in 2005.

Usually professional athletes, especially those who were once great, have to be dragged off the field or the court kicking and screaming. Not Cain. He announced his retirement shortly before the end of the 2017 season so that he knew exactly when and where he would pitch for the last time. This is highly unusual, and I’m not sure why Cain did it. Perhaps he saw the experience Ryan Vogelsong got to have — Vogelsong was a longtime Giants pitcher who got to come back to “start” one last game and get a huge ovation from the fans and wave to the crowd with his family by his side and get interviewed and all that — perhaps he saw Vogelsong’s decision and realized that was the way he wanted to go out, too. Perhaps baseball stopped being fun for him. Perhaps he was tired of the pain from his recurring injuries. Perhaps he was tired of watching 22-year-olds hit his pitches out of the park.

Anyways, Cain pitched for the last time on September 30, 2017 (the day before his 33rd birthday), and I didn’t get to see it. I was at a friend’s house in the Northern California countryside with no reception, no internet, and no cable TV. At first I was upset about this, but I came to realize that, for me at least, it was fitting. When Matt Cain came up to the big leagues in 2005 (at age 20!), I never got to watch him pitch. We didn’t have cable, and once broadcast switched to a digital signal, we didn’t have broadcast. Games were expensive and I went to one a year at the most. I didn’t see him pitch, live or on TV, until a couple years into his career. I got to know him by listening to games on the radio, by reading recaps and looking at newsprint photos of him pitching (face contorted with effort, arm at an impossible angle) in the morning paper, by staring at his pitching line in box scores, by watching how his ERA changed with each game. He kept me interested in a season Barry Bonds missed with injury, but I had no conception, no mental picture, of what he looked like when he pitched. How he threw, how he carried himself, how he stared in and got the sign from the catcher, how he fielded his position, how he reacted to good plays and to bad calls. When I actually saw him for the first time on TV, several years later, I remember being surprised at how stiff and awkward his motion was compared to what I had imagined (just like Barry Bonds had a far quicker swing than I had imagined). Of course, it was relative — Cain is far more coordinated and graceful than you or I.

So it actually made sense that I would miss the last game, that I would be miles away and out of reach. That’s always when things happen, isn’t it? That’s always when time happens, effecting changes and ending things too early — when we’re far away and not paying attention.

Cain pitched for the last time and, for him at least, the way the game went was fitting. He lasted only 5 innings — his stamina isn’t what it used to be — but they were 5 scoreless innings. One last time, he put the Giants in a position to win. One last time, the Giants blew it.

The Giants lost, 3–2. The ultimate Cain game.

Doesn’t matter. Bochy pulled Cain between innings on the foul territory grass and Cain got his ovation, the big, huge ovation that he deserved. On the broadcast (I watched the highlights a day later), Krukow pointed out that most pitchers don’t get to do that. They don’t get to go out on their own terms. They pitch until no one wants to employ them anymore. Sometimes they pitch until even their fans turn on them. But Cain went out on his own terms, as a still-beloved pitcher who could pitch 5 innings without embarrassing himself.

Finally he took control back from the baseball demons who had tormented him on and off for 13 years.

It might still reverse. That golden moment might not be the end of the story. Cain could wake up one December morning and say to himself, “Hey, my arm feels pretty good. I’m not quite done yet.” And he’ll get his agent on the phone, work out for a few teams, get signed by the Twins or somebody, and pitch a couple dozen innings and give up a few dozen doubles and homers, and the baseball demons will cackle. It’s basically what happened to Barry Zito a couple years ago.

Whatever. Giants fans know what Matt Cain was, and that ovation will close documentaries on his career, aired by CSN Bay Area or NBC Sports Bay Area or whatever the hell it’s called, for the next several years.

He won’t make the Hall of Fame — but, hell, neither did Bonds.

Matt Cain was as heroic as a man who throws a ball for a living can be. I’m sure he’d like to be remembered as a winner, and he certainly was a winner — one of the biggest winners in Giants history and in recent baseball history.

But I’ll remember the way he lost, and lost, and went back out there to lose again, as much as I remember Bonds’ 71st, or Romo’s fastball to Cabrera, or Bumgarner’s 5 innings, or Wilson’s called strike to Howard. Maybe even more.

time goes by really slow and i NEED TO LET IT OUT -kelela when will you get tired of feeling bad? -banks it’s a butterfly who waits for the world -grimes