San Francisco Giants

With arm and legs, Johnny Cueto helps Giants to critical 7-2 win over Rockies

San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto works against the Colorado Rockies during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, in San Francisco.
San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto works against the Colorado Rockies during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, in San Francisco. AP

The Giants built their recent postseason runs partly on an offense that pieced together scoring rallies in the most unconventional of ways. Thursday night, in a game that was as critical toward returning to the playoffs as they’ve had all season, that offense made a timely return.

The Giants broke a tie in a three-run sixth inning while hitting one ball out of the infield and benefiting from two Rockies errors. Two runs scored on a bunt hit by pitcher Johnny Cueto, who threw seven strong innings for his 18th win. And the Giants held onto a slim lead for the second wild-card spot with a 7-2 win at AT&T Park, setting the stage for a dramatic final weekend of the regular season.

Cueto, returning from a groin injury, was dominant after a first inning in which he gave up two runs on three extra-base hits but also struck out the side. He finished with 11 strikeouts in seven innings, tying his season high, while allowing just one batter to reach second base after the first.

It was the kind of performance in a big moment the Giants envisioned when they signed Cueto to a six-year, $130 million contract last winter. Unless he pitches in relief this weekend against the Dodgers or in a tie-breaker game, Cueto will finish his first season as a Giant with an 18-5 record, 2.79 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 219 2/3 innings.

"He’s everything we thought and more," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I guess that’s the best way to summarize it. Some players, you know they’re good, but when you get a chance to see them first-hand, you get to appreciate what they do, the work they put in.

"You know he has good stuff. But the focus he throws out there, his will to win, that’s something that I didn’t know that much about. But watching him here, I’ve learned to appreciate it."

An example Thursday came in a bizarre bottom of the sixth. Brandon Crawford started the inning with a dribbler for an infield single and took second on pitcher Jon Gray’s throwing error. Angel Pagan followed with a bunt single that moved Crawford to third.

Joe Panik then hit a chopper to first baseman Gerardo Parra, who threw behind Crawford at third. But Crawford dove back safely -- a call upheld on review -- which left the bases loaded with nobody out. Conor Gillaspie lined the inning’s first hard-hit ball to left field for a sacrifice fly, giving the Giants a 3-2 lead.

That brought up Cueto, who dropped a perfect bunt into a vacant area up the third-base line. Showing no effects from the groin strain that had caused him to take nine days between starts, Cueto ran hard up the line and forced an errant throw from third baseman Nolan Arenado that allowed both Pagan and Panik to score.

"The bunt was for me to move the runners up," Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "But when I saw nobody was going to be able to get to the ball I sped up a little bit more to get to first base."

The Giants’ dugout reacted wildly, nobody more so than Hunter Pence, whose wide-eyed look was captured by TV cameras.

"A lot of happiness," Pence said. "It was a big moment. A lot of good stuff happened, so it was just happy."

The Giants added two runs in the eighth on a bases-loaded walk and another sacrifice fly and won a series for just the fourth time in 21 tries in the second half. They also remained a game up for the second wild-card spot in front of the Cardinals, who beat the Reds in a controversial walk-off in St. Louis.

Yadier Molina’s double scored the game-winning run from first base, but appeared to hit off signage above the left-field wall that is out of play. That would have meant a ground-rule double and the game continuing. The Reds, however, did not immediately call for a replay review and umpires left the field as the game ended in a 4-3 decision.

Bochy said he learned about that finish after the Giants’ game ended and had heard that the Reds might protest the outcome.

"We’ll see what happens," Bochy said. "It’s a tough break for the Reds, a tough break, I guess, for us."

Heading to the final weekend, the Giants trail the Mets by a game for the top wild-card spot and hold a one-game margin over St. Louis. The Mets travel to Philadelphia to play the Phillies for their final three games while the Cardinals will host the Pirates.

"It’s exciting," Bochy said. "We certainly wish we were in a better position but you don’t stop fighting and you saw that today in the guys."

The Giants, of course, host the Dodgers for their final three games starting with Madison Bumgarner opposing Rich Hill on Friday night. Bumgarner can continue a historic roll: Matt Moore, Jeff Samardzija and Cueto all recorded 11 strikeouts in their outings against the Rockies, marking just the second time since 1913 the Giants have had starters record double-digit strikeouts in three straight games.

Samardzija said after Wednesday’s game he will be ready this weekend if the Giants need him for an emergency relief outing. Cueto echoed that sentiment Thursday night.

"I’m ready," he said. "If they give me the ball I’ll take the ball, and I’ll go out on the mound."