SAN FRANCISCO -- His team slumping and showing signs of fatigue, Giants manager Bruce Bochy cancelled batting practice Thursday and told players not to report until about two hours before game time. Johnny Cueto, the night’s starting pitcher, said he arrived at AT&T Park around 5:10 p.m.
"And I thought I was late," Cueto said.
The performance he gave was right on time.
Cueto threw a complete game and drove in the go-ahead run as the Giants beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-2, in the opener of a four-game series with real playoff implications. The Giants moved to a game ahead of the Mets in the wild-card race and two games ahead of the Cardinals, and also gained on the Dodgers, whom they trial by four games.
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Managers from both teams predicted a tense atmosphere for this series before the game. Cueto said the implications were not lost on him.
"Every game that I pitch or will pitch from now on, I’m going to treat it like a playoff game," Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "We have 16 (games) left, and that’s how I think we should play, like it’s a playoff game."
Cueto needed 105 pitches to finish his fifth complete game of the season, tying White Sox left-hander Chris Sale for the majors’ lead. He did not allow a run after the fourth inning and retired his final 17 batters in order, giving a much-maligned Giants bullpen the night off.
"That’s what good starters do," Bochy said. "They’re good closers."
After watching his team swept in three games by the Padres, Bochy made a few changes Thursday. He told players to arrive by 5 p.m. and hit in the cages instead of on the field, saying he wanted to "try to freshen them up and get their mind off it a little bit."
Hunter Pence said the Giants’ training room didn’t even open until 4 p.m. -- so he got to the field at 3:50 p.m. Still, Pence said, Bochy’s strategy was well-received.
"Absolutely, I think it was a very good impact," Pence said. "Obviously we didn’t have the best series against the Padres, and sometimes you take a step back really and just re-frame, refresh, regroup. And it really felt good."
Pence got the Giants’ offense going with a two-run homer in the first inning, crushing a hanging breaking ball from Adam Wainwright into the left-field seats. It scored Buster Posey, who came in hitting .193 over his last 14 games but recorded his second four-hit game of the season.
Cueto allowed RBI singles by Jedd Gyorko in the third inning and Randal Grichuk in the fourth to tie the game. But he took the lead back himself in the bottom of the fourth when he came up with the bases loaded and hit a line drive to right field, deep enough to score Brandon Belt from third. Angel Pagan followed with an RBI single to make it 4-2.
Pagan batted leadoff Thursday as Bochy also dropped Denard Span, who had two hits in his previous 41 at-bats, out of the leadoff spot down to eighth. Span responded with two hits, including a bases-loaded, two-run single in the seventh that gave Cueto a cushion.
"I know it’s been a tough go for him recently, but he handled it well," Bochy said. "He went out there and got a couple hits, a big hit with the bases loaded. That’s the way it’s got to be sometimes.
"You can’t dwell on it or think you’re getting punished a little bit or whatever. That’s not the case. I just wanted to break it up and see if we could do something for this offense, get it clicking a little bit."
Even deep in September, Cueto appeared strong into the late innings, hitting 94 miles per hour on the radar gun several times. He clapped and pointed in the ninth at Brandon Crawford after the shortstop ranged far into the hole for a backhand play on a chopper by Yadier Molina, and got Matt Adams to fly out on his 105th pitch to end the game.
"I told myself that I needed to keep on bettering myself," Cueto said. "Inning after inning I felt that I was getting better."
Cueto also said the late report time Thursday was a nice break. He would enjoy another soon. Bochy said it’s another 5 p.m. show-up Friday.
"We’re not changing anything," Bochy said.