Before Wednesday, the last time Johnny Cueto pitched in a game was the second night of last year’s World Series, when he threw a two-hit complete game for the eventual champion Royals against the Mets.
Cueto made his spring training debut for the Giants in Wednesday’s 8-6 loss to the Rockies, his first outing for the team that gave him a six-year, $130 million contract during the offseason. Asked afterward if he felt nervous given the circumstances, Cueto broke into a grin.
“There is nothing to be nervous about,” he said through an interpreter.
That stance, Cueto said, also applied to the expectations sure to be heaped upon him given the size of his contract and the somewhat messy appearance of his line Wednesday. Cueto lasted just 1 1/3 innings while facing nine batters, giving up five runs on four hits – including a two-run homer by Carlos Gonzalez – striking out two batters and walking one.
“He’s getting ready for the season, that’s what I think,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s not there yet as far as stuff, command. It’s his first time out, so I didn’t really expect him to be real sharp, to be honest.”
Cueto threw 237 innings during the regular season and playoffs last year, and while there are no concerns about his health, the Giants are being cautious. Cueto exited Wednesday’s game after reaching a predetermined pitch limit and Bochy said afterward: “The most important thing is I checked on him to make sure he’s fine. He feels good and he’ll be out there in five days.”
Cueto took the mound with his trademark dreadlocks streaming from under his black cap and delivered a strike with his first pitch, using a twisting wind-up in which he turned his back completely to batter Gerardo Parra. On the next pitch, Cueto omitted the turn, instead quickly stepping toward home on an offering that Parra took for a ball.
Varying his pitching motion is another Cueto trademark, something he does to throw off the timing of hitters. While he used the quick-pitch technique several times Wednesday, a more extreme variation came on a pitch to DJ LeMahieu. Cueto went into his longer wind-up and paused at the height of his turn, balancing on his right leg for what seemed like several seconds, before finally delivering the pitch.
“He might have gone a little too far and was trying to get his balance back,” Bochy said. “I haven’t seen one quite that long. It may be in his repertoire. I don’t know.”
LeMahieu took the pitch for a ball. But had he put it in play, shortstop Brandon Crawford joked: “I was ready.”
“I was more ready for that than the quick pitches,” said Crawford, who played in the field for the first time this spring. “(Third baseman Matt Duffy) and I were talking about it – it’s a lot easier from the defensive side to be ready for (Cueto’s) quick pitch than it is on the offensive side.”
Crawford said he always had trouble hitting against Cueto because of how Cueto mixed his delivery. Crawford taps his bat against his shoulder and lifts his front foot slightly as mechanisms to time his swing, and he said Cueto threw those devices off by varying his times to the plate. In 10 career at-bats against Cueto, Crawford does not have a hit.
“Some guys will quick pitch only with the fastball, just to try to blow it by you, which you can actually be more ready for because you know a fastball’s coming,” Crawford said. “But he’ll throw anything off of that. So that makes it tougher.”
An example Wednesday came when Cueto ran the count to 2-2 against leadoff hitter Parra and threw a slider with his quick-pitch delivery for a called strike three.
After striking out Parra, Cueto walked LeMahieu and threw a first-pitch fastball that Gonzalez lined into the bullpen in right-center field. When Cueto missed his location on a 1-2 pitch to Nolan Arenado, he snapped at catcher Buster Posey’s return throw with his mitt, stalked behind the mound and threw the rosin bag into the ground. Afterward, Cueto admitted he made “a few mistakes” in his Giants debut, but that overall he “felt really good.”
“The ball was not breaking the way I wanted,” he said. “But that’s what spring training is for.”