The backdrop was a spring training stadium in early March, the announced crowd a mere 11,318.
But those were real hitters Matt Cain was facing – wearing Los Angeles Dodgers uniforms, no less – and eight months removed from his last pitch in a game, the veteran right-hander admitted he felt some butterflies when he took the mound Monday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium.
Cain’s final appearance of 2014 came on July 9; he had surgery to remove bone spurs from his throwing elbow a month later, then had another spur removed from his right ankle in September. His return to the mound in his Cactus League debut was largely uneventful – which is to say it was about as smooth as the Giants could have hoped.
Cain needed just 20 pitches to complete two perfect innings, facing a lineup that looked similar to what the Dodgers will use in the regular season. Cain got leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins to fly out to center field, then retired Carl Crawford on a groundout and coaxed a flyout from Yasiel Puig, who was loudly booed before his at-bat.
In the second inning, Cain induced groundouts by Adrian Gonzalez and Howie Kendrick, and got Yasmani Grandal to fly out.
“That went really good,” Cain said afterward. “It was even better facing these guys. It was definitely good to get back out there and … get that extra competitive adrenaline going.”
Cain threw 13 of his 20 pitches for strikes. His fastball sat in the low 90s, and he mixed in his curveball, slider and changeup. He said a focus going in was establishing a rhythm on the mound, and “it all kind of worked out today.”
“I thought he looked great,” catcher Buster Posey said. “Even his bullpen session before the game was just very smooth and controlled, and he carried it over into the game.
“Everything seems very smooth and rhythmic and effortless right now, which has got to be a great feeling for him.”
Physically, Cain said he has no lingering effects from the ankle procedure and does not anticipate needing heavy treatment this season to maintain his elbow. He said he might scale back the intensity of his throwing between starts, so as to “not waste ’em playing catch.”
Cain threw at least 200 innings, a benchmark for durability, in six consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2012, and he said Monday that reaching that number again is a goal in 2015.
“I’ve always said that to you guys, that the biggest thing for me is to stay healthy and get to 200 innings,” Cain said. “I think everything else will kind of take care of itself.”
Though he pitched for a long time with the bone spurs, Cain said Monday he did not find himself gritting through notable pain during starts last season. Instead, the big difference following their removal is that he has more range of motion in his pitching arm. Cain has not used the bone spurs as an explanation for his numbers in the past two seasons – 10-17 with a 4.06 ERA in 45 starts.
Many see a return to form by Cain as imperative if the Giants are to contend again this season. Cain, 30, who acknowledged at FanFest in February that he “underperformed” the past two seasons, agrees with that view.
“I want to go out there and throw 200 innings. I want to go out there and give those guys a chance to win every fifth day,” he said. “That’s my goal, and that’s what I want to do. So that’s the plan.”
Et cetera – Ryan Vogelsong relieved Cain in the Giants’ 5-5, nine-inning tie with the Dodgers and pitched three innings, striking out four and allowing a two-run homer by Puig in the fourth. Vogelsong, who is preparing this spring for a possible long-reliever role, said he was “panicking a little bit” while warming up in the bottom of the second, thinking he might not be ready in time after the Giants made two quick outs.
A two-out single by Matt Duffy gave him more time, but Vogelsong said having to warm up quickly is an ongoing adjustment.
“It’s going to be one of those things,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”
▪ Gregor Blanco left the game after being hit by a Brandon League pitch in the fifth. Blanco had a contusion on the inside of his left knee but said he was OK.
▪ Former Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval created a stir Monday in an interview with Bleacher Report in which he said it was not a difficult decision to leave the Giants and directed a few choice words toward his former team.
Sandoval, who signed a five-year deal with Boston in November, told Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller that he knew before last season he would not return to the Giants, saying he felt disrespected in contract talks during the spring. He also said he disregarded interest from the San Diego Padres because “it would have been crazy when we played San Francisco,” and that there isn’t much that he misses about the Giants.
“Only Bochy,” Sandoval said. “I love Boch. He’s like my dad. He’s the only guy that I miss. And Hunter Pence. Just those guys. But now, I feel like I’m home.”