SAN FRANCISCO -- Matt Cain has said for a while now that he believes he’s close to regaining the form that once made him a front-end starter for the Giants -- that he’s just waiting, as he said after his last start at AT&T Park, for "that last little click to happen."
The Giants, in turn, have been patient with the right-hander, seizing upon glimpses of "the old Matt Cain" and saying they believe he’s only going to get better as he further distances himself from last year’s elbow surgery. But Tuesday night may have been a critical point.
Cain allowed six runs in five innings in the Giants’ 8-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs, with five of them scoring on two mistake pitches that resulted in impressive home runs on a cool night at AT&T Park. The outing raised Cain’s ERA this season to 6.15 in 10 starts, tied for fifth-highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 50 innings. In his 52 2/3 innings, Cain has given up 11 homers.
Kyle Schwarber hammered a hanging slider over the brick wall in right-center for a three run homer in the third inning Tuesday and Miguel Montero lifted a high fly ball into the arcade seats in right for a two-run job in the fourth. The moon shots created a deep crater for the Giants to try to climb out of against Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, who now has a 0.54 ERA and became the majors’ first 16-game winner this season, as the Giants did most of their damage in the late innings against the Chicago bullpen.
It only delayed the questions about Cain, which manager Bruce Bochy forestalled, saying Giants brass would get together soon to discuss Cain’s spot in the rotation.
"We’ll talk about Matty tomorrow, see where we’re at," Bochy said. "I think it’s fair to say he’s not quite where I think he’s going to be. But these are things we’ll talk about after I’m done here."
Frustrating for both Cain and Bochy was the fact that, for the first two innings Tuesday, Cain was cruising. He retired his first six batters on 19 pitches. A single by Starlin Castro leading off the third inning was the only hit Cain allowed his first time through the Cubs lineup.
But the problem for Cain this season has been navigating lineups in the middle innings, and his second time through the lineup Tuesday, the Cubs went 5-for-8 with two homers, six RBIs and a walk. This season, opponents are batting .413 against Cain their second time through the order, with 16 of their 33 hits going for extra bases.
"He just looked like his (arm) slot changed a little bit, got a little lower, flattened out," Bochy said of Cain in the third inning.
Cain had a chance to escape the third inning unscathed after third baseman Matt Duffy made a sharp play to charge Dexter Fowler’s chopper and throw Castro out at home for the second out. But Cain then left a slider up to Schwarber and that quickly, the Giants trailed 3-0. Cain allowed three more runs on four hits in the fourth and departed after the fifth inning and just 73 pitches.
"Just made a couple bad pitches and it ended up costing us," Cain said. "That’s kind of what this game comes down to. If you make big mistakes like that, hanging breaking balls to guys that can leave the yard with some power, they’re going to take advantage."
Bochy said that although Cain is still figuring out how to pitch with a "different" arm following his surgery, "We think he’s healthy." That’s notable, given that the likeliest candidate to replace Cain in the rotation would be Chris Heston, whom the Giants sent down to Triple-A on Aug. 21. Heston cannot be recalled for 10 days -- that would be a day after Cain’s next scheduled start Sunday against the Giants -- unless he replaces a pitcher who is hurt.
The numbers overall on Cain aren’t pretty, and here’s another one: Opposing hitters are batting .500 (15-for-30) with eight extra-base hits against Cain this season when they put the first pitch in play, as Montero did on his fourth-inning homer Tuesday. It was another question put to Bochy about Cain on Tuesday night, and the manager spun it into a more broad answer.
"It comes down to sometimes they don’t have their normal sharp command," Bochy said. "We know what he’s done for us. And he’s not there yet. He’s making some mistakes, whether it’s early in the count or with two strikes. He’s just not quite getting the ball consistently where he needs to get it, and I think where he will get it.
"Right now, he’s not quite there."
* After Cain exited, the Cubs ran their lead to 8-0 in the sixth, scoring on a Starlin Castro homer off Yusmeiro Petit and a Brandon Crawford error. Bochy started emptying out his bench soon after, taking out Buster Posey in the seventh and Crawford in the eighth.
The Crawford move, however, wasn’t only because of the score. Bochy revealed after the game that Crawford felt tightness in his left side during his final swing of a 12-pitch at-bat in the bottom of the sixth and was taken out for precautionary reasons.
"It tightened up quite a bit, and it wasn’t worth the risk to keep playing," Bochy said. "We’ll see how Craw’s doing tomorrow. My hope is he’s fine. I put him at day-to-day right now."
Crawford fouled off six pitches in that at-bat against Arrieta before swinging at a slider for strike three. He said afterward he hadn’t felt any tightness before the last swing. He was icing the area and said it still felt a little tight about an hour after the game.
"We’ll just kind of see how it feels tomorrow," he said.
With Kelby Tomlinson, the Giants’ lone backup infielder, having already entered as part of a double-switch in the sixth inning, Bochy had to move Tomlinson from second base to shortstop and put Juan Perez in at second. It was the first time Perez had played second since 2009, when he appeared in 72 games there with Single-A Augusta.
* The Giants went into Wrigley Field on August 6 with a half-game lead over the Cubs for the second N.L. wild card spot. After Tuesday night’s loss, they’re now 7 ½ games behind Chicago in that race. The Cubs are the hottest team in baseball, having won 21 of their last 25 games, and trail only division rivals St. Louis and Pittsburgh for the best record in the National League.
It’s a daunting deficit for the Giants to face with a little over a month left in the season, made all the more so by their combined 1-11 record against the Cubs and Pirates. Bochy said the Giants still aren’t counting themselves out of any race.
"I don’t think that door’s ever shut," Bochy said of the wild card. "We’re in August … We never give up on any door."
But it’s starting to look more and more like the Giants’ threshold into the postseason will be if they can overtake the Dodgers and win the division. Tuesday’s loss dropped them to 2 ½ games behind L.A., but they still face the Dodgers seven more times -- including a four-game series at home in late September -- and are 9-3 against their rivals this season.
Winning the division is preferable, anyway, in that it lets a team avoid the one-game wild card playoff. But along with the best option, it’s starting to look like it might well be the Giants’ only one.
"Obviously you want to win your division, that’s what we’re looking at and how we have to play the game," Bochy said. "But these other teams, they can stumble, too."
* The Giants are winless in five games against the Cubs this season. Why is that?
"Their pitching’s done a good job," Bochy said.
In a crowded N.L. Cy Young field this year, Arrieta might be a dark horse, but he’s making quite a late charge. The right-hander has a 0.54 ERA in August and Tuesday recorded his 13th consecutive quality start. The last Cubs pitcher to do that: Greg Maddux, who had 14 straight in 1992.
"You look at the year he’s having, he’s throwing the ball as well as anyone," Bochy said. "You’re hoping your guy’s on to keep it close, and you see what happens. But we let that game get out of hand."
One thing about that stacked N.L. Central this year: They can pitch. Entering Tuesday, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs all ranked in the top five in the majors in team ERA. If the season ended today, though, only one team would make it past the divisional playoff round: The Pirates and Cubs would play the wild-card game, then face the Cardinals, who have the league’s best record, in the opening round. Wacky.
* A bit of good news for the Giants: Angel Pagan played his first rehab game with Triple-A Sacramento on Tuesday and went 2-for-3 with two walks and two runs scored. Pagan’s scheduled to play nine innings Wednesday and then rejoin the Giants to be evaluated. Bochy said prior to Tuesday’s game that Pagan could still be activated before Sept. 1.
Joe Panik’s progress from back inflammation has been slower. The second baseman is in San Francisco and has started taking light swings and playing catch. But Bochy said Panik likely won’t take batting practice until Sunday at the earliest, and a best-case return date for Panik is probably the Giants’ series in Arizona at the end of the next road trip.
"If all goes well and we can bump it up a couple days, we’ll do it," Bochy said. "But we gotta do what’s right."
* The Giants will try to even this series behind Jake Peavy (3-6, 4.35) on Wednesday. The Cubs will start right-hander Kyle Kendricks (6-5, 4.03). First pitch at 7:15 p.m.
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