San Francisco Giants

Giants’ Johnny Cueto shows deceptive pickoff move in final spring start

Johnny Cueto fist bumps first-base coach Bill Hayes after hitting an RBI single at Raley Field on March 30, 2016
Johnny Cueto fist bumps first-base coach Bill Hayes after hitting an RBI single at Raley Field on March 30, 2016

Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto can be deceptive to hitters with the way he varies his timing and delivery to the plate. It turns out he can be just as deceptive throwing to first base.

Cueto picked off three runners in Wednesday’s exhibition game between the Giants and Triple-A River Cats, catching Gorkys Hernandez, Grant Green and Darren Ford straying too far from first. Making his final tuneup start before the regular season, Cueto pitched six innings, allowed three runs on eight hits, struck out four and showed a pickoff move that appeared to already be in midseason form.

“I guess only I and God know what I do,” Cueto said, “but I just try to be perfect when I move to first.”

Deterring runners is part of Cueto’s game. In 2012, he had the second-most pickoffs in the majors (nine) behind Clayton Kershaw, and he was the only right-hander with more than five. Word evidently got around. Last season Cueto recorded just one pickoff – but opponents attempted just five steals against him and were successful only three times.

“It’s always good when you have that arsenal in your favor, when you can help yourself and pick off somebody at first base,” Cueto said through an interpreter. “Especially if you have a batter 0-2, then after you pick him off you can just concentrate on the hitter.”

First baseman Brandon Belt, who sees Cueto’s move from roughly the same angle as the runner, attempted to describe what makes it so deceiving.

“It’s really quick,” Belt said. “And he allows time for the play to develop. Sometimes pitchers can get a little quick over there – they don’t let the runner get off as far as he needs to. But (Cueto) does.

“He lets that kind of develop and lets them get a little extra step out there. He’ll even hold it for a few seconds. And then he really has a quick move, good feet and a good arm. It’s definitely one of the better pickoff moves that I’ve seen.”

On top of that, Cueto said he tries “to be perfect” placing his throw right where the runner is retreating to the bag.

“As far as putting the ball where it needs to be, he’s the best I’ve seen at it so far this spring,” Belt said. “All that together, plus as quick as he is, great pickoff move.”

From a pitching standpoint, Wednesday was an encouraging spring finale for Cueto, who was held back early in spring because of his workload last season and left Arizona with a 9.58 ERA in three Cactus League outings. Cueto eclipsed the 80-pitch mark, did not walk a batter and helped his own cause with an RBI single in the second inning – a soft line drive back up the middle past a drawn-in Sacramento infield.

It was Cueto’s second hit of the spring, and he said with a grin that he’s “more relaxed” now going into the season. The next time he takes the mound will be next Tuesday in Milwaukee in the Giants’ second regular-season game.

“He had a great game (Wednesday),” manager Bruce Bochy said. “I thought he got a lot accomplished with his pitches tonight … He’s ready to go.”

Et cetera – A sellout crowd turned out to watch the Giants’ first visit to Raley Field, and the fans witnessed a power display by the Giants’ big names. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford all homered in the Giants’ 8-4 win over their Triple-A affiliate, while shortstop Hak-Ju Lee hit a two-run homer off Cueto for the River Cats.

Last season was Year One of the Giants-River Cats affiliation and both sides deemed it a success – enough that they announced a four-year extension of the partnership through the 2020 season earlier this spring. The turnout for Wednesday’s exhibition underscored the area’s affinity for the Giants, but the big-league side also came away impressed.

“This is a beautiful park,” Bochy said. “The atmosphere was just terrific, the fans. Even Buster told me in the dugout, ‘This is nice.’ Guys enjoyed it. They had a great time with these fans.”

Though the attendance figure of 14,014 wasn’t that much higher than some games in the Cactus League, Bochy said the atmosphere at Raley Field was closer to a regular-season game and a step toward the regular season after five weeks in Arizona.

“It was a different energy level,” he said.

Before the game, right-hander Matt Cain said he expects to start Saturday in the finale of the Bay Bridge series against the A’s. It’s the Giants’ final preseason game and will be Cain’s last tuneup before his scheduled regular-season debut April 8 against the Dodgers.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee