If Clayton Kershaw is the pitching equivalent of a jackhammer, relentless from his over-the-top arm angle with mid-90s fastballs and devastating curves, then Johnny Cueto, with his myriad ways of delivering pitches with surgeon’s control, must be one of those 10-in-1 multi-tools.
Both were highly effective Friday night in a pitching matchup that warranted its marquee billing. The Giants and Dodgers each entered with 11-1 records in games started by their respective aces and both were dominant for stretches Friday night, finishing with identical lines of two runs allowed in eight innings.
But only Kershaw, who struck out 13 batters, factored into the decision. Justin Turner homered off of Giants closer Santiago Casilla leading off the ninth inning, and the Dodgers won 3-2 in the opener of a three-game series at AT&T Park.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy has stayed behind Casilla while the closer has blown four of his first 16 save chances this season. That did not change after Friday’s non-save situation, when Casilla entered a 2-2 game and surrendered his fourth homer this season in 24 1/3 innings.
“That’s coming up a lot,” Bochy said. “He’s our closer. That was his situation, righties are hitting .170 off him. He made a mistake there and it went for a home run.
“Sure, I’m surprised when he gives up a home run. He’s your closer. But you look at our bullpen, that’s the way it shapes up. We’ve got to hopefully get a little better everywhere. I think overall we’ve been pretty good, but I will admit we need to get a little better here late in the ballgame.”
Catcher Buster Posey said the 2-1 pitch to Turner was a cutter, “And I just didn’t think it quite had the finish on it that one of his good ones does.” Turner lined it over the wall in left field, undoing Cueto’s outing and the work the Giants’ offense had done to chip away at Kershaw after an early 2-0 deficit.
Cueto’s night began oddly, with all the Dodgers’ damage against him coming within the first five batters. He nicked Chase Utley with his second pitch of the game, Corey Seager squibbed an infield single and both runners moved up on a wild pitch. Then, Cueto was called for a balk by first-base umpire Bill Welke for doing his stop-and-shimmy delivery, which allowed Utley to score from third for the game’s first run.
Both Cueto and Bochy protested the call to no avail. Welke later told a pool reporter from the AP that the umpiring crew ruled Cueto had actually committed two balks on the pitch.
“The ruling, when you pitch from the windup, is you have to deliver the ball without interruption or alteration,” Welke said. “When he rolled back he came to a complete stop and then he shook forward and back, forward and back with his shoulders and his foot was moving. That’s interrupted and he altered his motion, that is a balk.
“He stopped, and then he rocked. The stopping ... if he stops to change direction and continues, he’s OK. He came to a complete stop, he paused, one. Second thing is then he does this (rocking motion with his shoulders). That’s not acceptable with a runner on base.”
Cueto said he could not remember a previous instance when he was called for a balk for that motion and didn’t think he had committed a balk. Bochy said after the game he was still confused by the explanation he received from the umpiring crew.
“I was told that it wasn’t one continuous motion,” Bochy said. “He’s been throwing like that for quite a while, so we’ve got to get some clarity on this.”
“He wasn’t trying to deceive the runner. That’s his style. It’s a tough time to get that called on him, because he’s had that hesitation and those gyrations for quite a while now.”
After striking out Turner, Cueto allowed singles to Adrian Gonzalez and Trayce Thompson, the first of which scored Seager. He did not allow another hit in eight innings, and the only other Dodger baserunner off Cueto came when he again grazed Utley with a pitch in the fifth – so inconspicuously that it took a Dodgers challenge and review to award Utley the base.
Cueto retired 23 of his final 24 batters and his season ERA remained at 2.16. Still, after a one-run loss, he said the run on the balk grated at him.
“Yeah, it bothers you,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “You get upset because we lost the game. But it’s part of the game.”
The Giants found themselves in a 2-0 hole before Kershaw had even thrown a pitch. But Matt Duffy quickly cut the deficit in half with a first-inning home run, his first in a span of 215 at-bats going back to April 6 against Milwaukee – the first series of the season.
“It definitely feels good,” Duffy said. “I’ve been trying to do a little too much for quite a long time now … The funny thing is that’s probably the simplest, least focused-on-home-run swing I’ve taken in the last two months.”
It was just the fifth home run allowed this year by Kershaw, three of which have been hit by Giants. Madison Bumgarner, Ehire Adrianza, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton and the Mets’ Asdrubal Cabrera are the others to take the left-hander deep in 2016.
The Giants tied the game in the sixth when Joe Panik rolled a one-out single into right field and scored on Buster Posey’s double to the wall in left-center. After the Dodgers went ahead in the ninth, they brought in their closer Kenley Jansen for the save chance, and Posey hit another drive that, this time, died on the warning track in right-center.
“I can’t hit it much better than that that way,” Posey said. “I thought it was at least off the wall.”
It was an all-too-familiar sight for the Giants, who also saw drives to center by Brandon Crawford in the seventh and Joe Panik in the eighth caught on the warning track.
Brandon Belt gave the Giants life in the ninth with a two-out double and Gregor Blanco drew a walk. But Jansen fired a fastball past Crawford for a strikeout to end the game.