Back in February, Matt Cain arrived at the Giants’ FanFest event with a surgically cleaned right elbow and a fresh outlook. He said he was looking forward to the 2015 season as a “new beginning’ after he had “underperformed” the previous two years, and hoped the way he felt after having bone spurs removed from his elbow might portend a return to the form that once made him the ace of the Giants’ starting rotation.
On Friday, the Giants activated Cain from his second stint on the disabled list this season and sent the right-hander to the bullpen, where he will likely play out the remainder of the year. It surely was not how Cain or the Giants envisioned him spending September, nor did Cain’s season numbers entering Friday – a 2-4 record and 6.15 ERA in 10 starts – reflect the type of bounce-back year he had hoped for during the spring.
“I look back on the way that things went this season so far, and it stinks just to feel like you’re going to come out of spring training good, and (then) have a setback to almost the All-Star Break,” Cain said Friday. “It’s definitely been a different year for me – starting on the DL, going through the whole rehab process. It definitely was a lot longer than I wanted it to be.”
Cain’s comeback this spring was derailed by a flexor tendon strain that landed him on the DL in the first week of the regular season. He returned in early July, but over 10 starts never achieved consistency and several times had a promising outing snowball in one bad inning. After an Aug. 25 start in which he allowed six runs in five innings to the Cubs, the Giants placed Cain back on the DL with nerve irritation in his right elbow.
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Friday, Cain said his elbow “feels good,” and that the nerve issue “didn’t bug me” during his minor-league rehab outings.
“It’s good to be back,” he said.
The Giants, meanwhile, continue to hope the former Cain will be back at some point. Cain, 30, remains under contract through 2017 as part of the five-year, $112.5 million extension the Giants gave him in 2012, and the optimism remains he can still be the kind of rotation presence behind Madison Bumgarner that the Giants have searched for in 2015.
Manager Bruce Bochy said at times this season he saw glimpses of vintage Cain, but too often those came against a background of Cain being hit hard. Opponents are batting .311 against Cain this season, well above his career mark of .230. Cain has always been a fly-ball pitcher, but his home-run-per-fly-ball rate this season of 11.5 percent is a career high.
Cain has held opposing hitters to a .225 average his first time through the lineup, but the second time through that figure balloons to .413. Pitching coach Dave Righetti said that coincided with something Giants staff noticed – that around the same time in his starts, Cain’s arm slot would start to drop.
“The biggest thing was stamina out there in terms of his arm,” Righetti said. “Not his body – he was in great shape. (But) almost every game it was around the same point – he got to that third, fourth inning area, 50-to-75 (pitch) kind of range, you started seeing the arm coming down.”
The result, Righetti said, was that Cain’s pitches flattened out, running back over the middle of the plate to right-handed hitters and into the barrels of left-handers. When he went back on the DL in August, Cain said the elbow nerve problem had affected his ability to keep a consistent arm slot. Bochy has hypothesized that learning to pitch with a “new arm” after the elbow surgery has been a longer process for Cain than expected.
Now that he’s ostensibly healthy, Cain said his goal for the next month is to “just try to get into a good groove and finish out the last few weeks the way I know I’m capable of, just do some of the little things right. I got myself into some situations I could’ve got out of during the past couple months and I didn’t do it. And I think I’d like to do that.”
Should Cain’s only chances come as a reliever, he said he’s OK with that, though Bochy said there’s a possibility Cain could start again before the season ends.
“I just want to see a healthy Matty out there throwing the way he can,” Bochy said. “I think it would be important for him as he goes into the offseason (that) he knows he’s back to being the pitcher that he is, and he’s healthy. And he’s comfortable with his new arm, his delivery, so as he goes into spring training he knows he’s good to go.”
Cain said that despite how 2015 has unfolded for him, “I don’t have any more pressure for next year.” He acknowledged, though, that returning for the final stretch provides a valuable opportunity to build toward next spring – another new beginning.
“I definitely am looking forward to the next few weeks, finishing strong,” Cain said. “I think I might’ve found a couple things in my mechanics I can really stick to. And I think that can benefit me a lot.”