The pitching line wasn’t pretty. But afterward Johnny Cueto stood in front of a pillar in the Giants’ clubhouse, grinned a little and discussed the lineup that helped make him a winner in his first home start at AT&T Park.
“I think that’s what good teams are,” Cueto said through an interpreter after the Giants’ 9-6 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday. “They fall behind, and they always find a way to come back. And I just want to thank them for coming back for me today.”
Cueto and the Giants trailed 5-0 after an alarming top of the first inning in which the Dodgers sent 10 men to the plate. The first nine combined to go 5 for 5 with a walk, a hit batter, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly.
Adding to the indignity, Cueto slipped while running to back up home on Justin Turner’s RBI single, tweaking his lower back and knee. While a trainer checked Cueto, the Dodgers successfully challenged the call that catcher Buster Posey threw out Turner rounding first base too far.
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“That’s part of the game,” Cueto said. “But (between innings) my teammates told me just to keep the game at 5-0, and that they would take care of the rest.”
The Giants’ comeback, their largest in a win since Sept. 2, 2014, continued two trends from the season’s first week. It included three home runs – by Posey, Brandon Belt and Angel Pagan – giving the Giants 14 in their first seven games. And all five of their wins have come in games where their opponent scored first.
“It’s a great message for these pitchers,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “Just keep going, keep grinding, and just give this club a chance to come back.”
After chipping into the Dodgers’ lead with RBI singles by Belt and Matt Duffy in the first inning, the Giants tied it in the third on homers by Posey and Belt. Pagan’s shot re-tied it 6-6 in the fifth, and Joe Panik’s two-run double put the Giants ahead in the sixth.
The Giants have set a franchise record with home runs in their first seven games to start the season. All nine members of their Opening Day lineup – including pitcher Madison Bumgarner – have at least one home run.
The offense helped Cueto become the first Giants pitcher to earn a win after allowing five or more first-inning runs since Ryan Jensen in 2002. Afterward, though, Bochy and Cueto’s teammates credited him just as much for the comeback. The right-hander lasted seven innings, holding the Dodgers to one run over the final six.
“For him to end up going seven innings says a couple things: how tough he is, and he’s a pro,” Bochy said.
“His stuff picked up in the second inning. You could see a remarkable difference in his fastball and his off-speed pitches.”
Posey said pitching coach Dave Righetti approached Cueto after the first inning about creating more depth on his pitches and that starting in the second Cueto appeared to be throwing from a better angle. Cueto recorded eight strikeouts over the next four innings with seven coming on swings.
“He could’ve pouted (after the first),” Posey said. “He could’ve pouted and shut it down. But he stayed resilient and was able to help us win the game.”
Cueto’s turnaround was perhaps best illustrated by a moment in the fifth, when Bochy let his pitcher bat with two on and two out and the score tied. Cueto grounded out. Bochy said he made the decision partly because several of his relievers were off-limits but added: “I liked the way (Cueto) was throwing the ball. He was locked in and hitting his spots. He was a different pitcher than that first inning.”
Cueto was at 84 pitches at that point. But he recorded a seven-pitch sixth and escaped a two-on, two-out situation in the seventh by getting Micah Johnson to line out to Pagan in left. Cueto pumped his fist as he left the mound, habitually taking off his cap and tucking it under his left arm on his way to the dugout.
The Giants won three of four in an exciting first series of 2016 against the Dodgers. San Francisco overcame deficits of four and five runs in two of the wins, hit a walk-off home run in the other victory and lost Saturday by one run in 10 innings. In Sunday’s finale, Cueto gave up six runs and 10 hits, yet came away a winner.
“I think that’s kind of what we were hoping when he signed here is he was going to be a guy that could go deep in a game,” Posey said. “As rough a start as he had, to go seven – the numbers don’t look good, but it was really a great performance.”