— Terry Collins, this year’s National League manager for the All-Star Game, has a decision to make when it comes to his starting pitcher.
With Clayton Kershaw injured, Collins could go with last year’s Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta. He could tab his own ace, Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard, of the long hair and 100 mph fastball. And then there’s Johnny Cueto, who put a flourish on his first half and starting case in the Giants’ 5-1 win over the Rockies on Wednesday night.
Cueto threw his fourth complete game, which leads the majors, while improving to 13-1 on the season. His 13 wins lead the league, and he became the first Giants pitcher since John Burkett in 1993 to win 13 games before the All-Star Break. The Giants improved to 16-2 in his starts.
Is it enough to earn Cueto the start Tuesday in San Diego? Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Wednesday night Collins has already told him Cueto will pitch in the game -- but whether Cueto will start remains unknown.
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“But he certainly has made an enormous case for starting that game,” Bochy said. “You look at his record, his numbers, what a great first half he’s had. It’s obvious we’re pulling for it to happen.”
Cueto, who made one previous All-Star team in 2014 with the Reds but did not pitch in the game, said he would gladly take the assignment if offered.
“It would be big,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “It would mean a lot, because it would be the first time I would ever pitch in an All-Star Game. And I want to pitch.”
Perhaps no statement so eloquently distills what Cueto has meant to the Giants so far this season. His record aside, Cueto leads the N.L. with 131 1/3 innings pitched, consistently pitching into the seventh and eighth innings of his starts, or further. The Giants’ bullpen has struggled of late holding late leads, giving away another in a loss Tuesday night. They did not even have a chance for redemption Wednesday. Cueto did not allow it.
“This guy’s done all and gone beyond what we thought, that’s how good he’s been,” said Bochy. The Giants, of course, thought enough of Cueto over the offseason to sign him to a six-year contract worth $130 million.
Cueto said he’d mentioned to closer Santiago Casilla on Tuesday that, “I had not thrown a complete game in a while. So I guess it’s time for me to throw one.”
He did so against the Rockies on 118 pitches, allowing five hits and striking out eight. The lone run he allowed scored in the fourth inning on a fielder’s choice that was nearly an inning-ending double play, as Trevor Story beat second baseman Grant Green’s relay throw to first base by a step. After that, Cueto retired 16 of his final 17 hitters.
Cueto received a standing ovation as he jogged out to the mound to start the ninth inning, and another after Carlos Gonzalez grounded out to end the game. Another gesture waited for him in the post-game handshake line. The Giants’ position players, mimicking one of Cueto’s many quirks, all took off their caps and tucked them under their arms.
“I like it,” Cueto said afterward, grinning. “I like to have fun with my teammates.”
First baseman Brandon Belt said he had brought up the idea with teammates before the game. Belt thought he’d heard it from somebody else earlier in the season, but until that person came forward, he said, he was taking credit.
“I think the main reason he does this (pitches well) is because he takes his hat off after he gets done pitching every inning,” Belt deadpanned. “That’s a huge part of his success and we felt like we needed to join in that today.”
Belt helped stake Cueto to an early lead with a triple to the right-center field wall in the first inning that scored Grant Green from first base. Two batters later, Brandon Crawford lined a Jorge De La Rosa curveball softly to center for a single that scored Belt.
It was still 2-0 in the fourth when the Rockies put their first two batters on with singles. Typically a quick worker, Cueto slowed his pace down considerably, several times calling catcher Buster Posey out to the mound to talk with slugger Nolan Arenado at the plate. Cueto eventually froze Arenado on a fastball over the inside corner for strike three.
Cueto walked Carlos Gonzalez to load the bases and bring up Story, who drove in a run by beating out his potential double-play grounder to third. Cueto then struck out Daniel Descalso to end the inning.
“For him to limit them to one run there was a crucial part of the game,” Posey said. “It’s fun for me to watch him think through those situations, slow things down. Really you can tell he’s thinking out there on the mound of how he wants to try to get through the inning. That’s fun for me.”
Posey, who as the N.L.’s starting catcher might work with Cueto at the All-Star Game, hit his 11th home run of the season off De La Rosa in the sixth inning. He also notched, sneakily, his career-high fifth stolen base, which a reporter notified him after the game ranks him third among active Giants.
“Third on the team?” Posey said. “Sweet.”
Belt, meanwhile, bolstered his own All-Star case with a deep double in the eighth inning that helped key two more runs. Belt is one of five “Final Vote” candidates for the last N.L. roster spot, determined by fan voting that runs through Friday. His two hits bumped his average to an even .300, and his 46 RBIs rank second on the Giants behind Crawford, who upped his total to 55.
Belt said he was unaware that the Giants’ win Wednesday had improved their record to 54-33, giving them the best winning percentage in the majors at .621.
“Doesn’t surprise me with this team,” Belt said, before catching himself.
“Actually, it just tells you how special this team is. With the guys that we have down and out of our lineup, for the younger guys to step in and play those important roles, succeed in those roles, contribute, it’s been awesome to watch, it really has. I don’t say that as a cliché type thing. It really has been awesome to watch.”
Matt Kawahara: 916-321-1015, @matthewkawahara