Brandon Belt wouldn’t begrudge a teammate a shot at history, but the Giants’ first baseman joked he felt the urge during Johnny Cueto’s shutout of the San Diego Padres on Monday night.
“I think he had a perfect game through four (innings),” Belt said after the Giants’ 1-0 win, “but I just wanted him to let somebody get on base so we could pick him off.”
Cueto, who picked off three runners at first base in an exhibition game this spring, hardly had the opportunity Monday. The right-hander allowed two hits, both singles, in his third complete game this season – all against the Padres. He won for the seventh time in his first 10 starts as a Giant and lowered his ERA to 2.38.
Afterward, a common theme among Giants position players was how simply enjoyable it has been to play with and behind Cueto.
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“It’s fun watching him do what he does,” Belt said. “I was thinking about that (Monday) in the field – just how much I hated facing him in past years, and how much fun it is to have him on your team.”
I hated the slide-step, because I could never get my timing down. So now playing behind him, it’s kind of fun watching hitters be off balance and not quite able to time him up, like how I felt playing against him in the past.
Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, on facing Johnny Cueto
Part of that is Cueto’s attitude. After Monday’s game, right fielder Hunter Pence praised Cueto’s “intangibles,” using words such as “spirit” and “competitiveness.” Following Cueto’s first shutout of the Padres this season – also his 100th career win – catcher Buster Posey remarked that Cueto “kind of plays the game like a kid.”
“He really takes the game of baseball like he’s playing Little League,” outfielder Gregor Blanco said. “But he works hard. I didn’t know he was a guy that works that hard, but he works hard (between starts) and he’s really smart about the game.”
Cueto also works fast on the mound, which is something his defensive players appreciate. His average of 1.43 walks per nine innings this season is third lowest in the National League, and he entered Monday’s start having thrown first-pitch strikes to 71.6 percent of hitters he’d faced, the highest rate in the majors.
“Those type of guys are an infielder’s dream,” third baseman Matt Duffy said. “They’re working fast, they’re working in the strike zone, down, and everybody’s just beating the ball into the ground.
“There weren’t a lot of hard-hit ground balls (Monday), either. He was breaking a lot of bats, getting a lot off the end. It’s almost like ground-ball practice for us out there.”
Shortstop Brandon Crawford pointed out that Cueto’s command also makes it more likely the Giants will benefit from how they align their fielders against certain hitters.
“It’s easy to position yourself on defense if you know a pitch is going to be in a certain spot,” Crawford said. “Then it’s obviously up to the hitter whether or not they’re going to hit it in that spot where you’re standing. But there’s a lot better chance, if he’s putting it where he wants, that the guy’s going to hit it right at you.”
Although Cueto led the league in strikeouts in 2014 with the Cincinnati Reds, his penchant for strike-throwing often leads to early contact that keeps his pitch counts low and, to center fielder Denard Span, makes it seem as if “there’s always some action going.” To keep hitters from squaring up his pitches, Cueto uses various deliveries that can change from pitch to pitch.
He really takes the game of baseball like he’s playing Little League. But he works hard. I didn’t know he was a guy that works that hard, but he works hard (between starts) and he’s really smart about the game.
Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco, on Johnny Cueto
“My personal favorite is the quick pitch,” Duffy said. “Sometimes you don’t get a ground ball for six or seven innings, and it’s almost like you’re on your heels. … When he quick-pitches, whether I’m ready for it or not, it really keeps me on my toes as an infielder.”
“I like (the slower delivery), when he hangs up in the air with his leg,” Span said. “I don’t know where he’s looking, but he’ll do his little shimmy. To me, that’s just funny.”
It’s easier to laugh when you’re not in the batter’s box. Crawford, like Belt, said he “hated facing” Cueto as an opposing pitcher.
“I hated the slide-step, because I could never get my timing down,” Crawford said. “So now playing behind him, it’s kind of fun watching hitters be off balance and not quite able to time him up, like how I felt playing against him in the past.
“I’m glad he’s on my team.”