s
s
Sections
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

SAN FRANCISCO

Matt Cain was scheduled to start Sunday against the Florida Marlins, but the Giants announced Saturday that Johnny Cueto, on the mend from an inner ear infection, will take the mound at AT&T Park in the last game before the All-Star break.

So here’s a question: Will Cain ever start for the Giants again?

That sounds a little melodramatic, but his status is precarious. If Madison Bumgarner emerges healthy from his Single-A outing in San Jose on Monday, he will likely join the Giants rotation right after the break. And Cain could be the odd man out.

There are many moving parts in this creaky mechanism. Bumgarner’s return could be delayed. The Giants might trade Cueto before the July 31 trade deadline, opening a spot for another starter. They might elevate Tyler Beede from Triple-A. Someone else could get hurt. Before Friday’s game against the Marlins, manager Bruce Bochy even left open the possibility of a six-man rotation, almost as rare as a unicorn in Major League Baseball.

Bochy is generally protective of his players, and he has been especially supportive of Cain, his senior veteran. The manager noted that Cain has been a victim of circumstance in recent outings.

“He had a quality start going, and (I) made a pitching change there. We did give up a couple of his runs the last game,” Bochy said of Cain’s most recent start, on Tuesday. “And (against) Detroit, a good hitting ball club. Here against the Rockies (on June 27), we ended up winning (in a no-decision for Cain). But we walked a guy intentionally, he ended up scoring. So he’s actually been throwing the ball pretty good. His ball’s moving a lot, the sinker.”

“Yeah. I mean, I feel good,” Cain told me in the clubhouse Friday. “Feel like I’m making a lot of quality pitches. Although I get in some situations where I get myself in trouble. Just trying to minimize that.”

I asked Cain if he was trying any mechanical adjustments.

“Yeah, I may try underhand next time. I might try that one,” he said.

Our brief conversation had reached a crossroads. Cain had replied with impatience, if not outright disdain. I’ve heard this tone before. It often signals the end of an interview, or the beginning of hostility. But Cain eased off. I could tell he wasn’t thrilled with the topic, but he was trying to cooperate.

“No. I mean, nothing out of the ordinary,” he continued. “A lot of it really is keeping it pretty simple and try not to make big mistakes, especially in big situations. More of simplifying anything, if you can.”

Despite Bochy’s reassurances, Cain has done little of late to prove he deserves a spot in the rotation. He hasn’t won a game since May 15, dropping seven consecutive decisions since then. His earned run average over his past six starts is a dizzying 7.63. Cain’s fastball has lost its pop, and he is no longer the workhorse who gets stronger after the sixth inning.

Truth be told, he has been edging toward the professional cliff for several years now.

Cain was the Giants’ ace in 2012, when he 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA and 193 strikeouts in 219⅓ innings. He threw a perfect game in June of that year and was sixth in National League Cy Young voting. Cain started the final game of that season, a victory at Detroit that completed a San Francisco sweep in the World Series.

But he fell off the next year (8-10, 4.00), and a forearm contusion that August signaled the next phase of his career, defined by injuries. Cain would land on the disabled list eight times over the next three seasons: lacerated right index finger, strained right hamstring and right elbow inflammation (leading to surgery) in 2014; strained right flexor tendon and right elbow nerve irritation in 2015; right hamstring strain (twice) and lower back strain in 2016.

Cain won just eight games over that three-year span.

Despite all of that, Bochy made Cain his fifth starter when the 2017 season began. It seemed a leap of faith, and early on, the war horse justified it. After a month of baseball, Cain was 2-0 with a 2.30 ERA. He was a bright spot during a terrible start to the season. Since then he has been part of the problem. In fact, he has embodied it.

We’ve seen this before. Tim Lincecum put together four blindingly brilliant seasons (including two Cy Young awards) from 2008 to 2011, then slowly fizzled out as his arm tired. By the time the Giants won their third San Francisco title in 2014, Lincecum was coming out of the bullpen. When last seen on a major-league diamond, he was toting a 9.16 ERA for the Angels last year. It was hard to watch.

Cain’s story sounds the same but feels different. Lincecum was a meteor, a 170-pounder (officially; he was probably more like 150 pounds) who threw like a monster. The fans adored him. He grew his hair long, wore flannels and beanies, hinted vaguely at the occasional puff of weed. He was a character.

By contrast, Cain is Everyman. He always had major-league stuff, but not exactly a major-league physique. When he was 23, he looked 40. Now he’s 32, and he still looks 40. When he’s 50 he’ll probably look 40.

Before the Giants built World Series teams, Cain’s persona was the hard-luck hurler. Perhaps lulled by his dependability, the Giants didn’t hit for him. In 2008 he had the lowest run support in the NL. He never showed a hint of frustration, though. Just calmly walked off the mound start after start, 2-1 win or 3-2 loss.

Cain didn’t throttle opponents (perfect game aside). He wore them down. And he sort of did the same thing with the AT&T fans. They came to appreciate his effort, his solidity and his longevity.

By now, Cain is the last on-field link to the pre-World Series Giants. Buster Posey and Bumgarner got short whiffs of action after call-ups in 2009. But only Cain was here when the team lost a total of 181 games in 2007 and 2008.

“The years when I was first here, it was really like a complete rebuild,” Cain said. “Tons of transactions, I think, in what was it? ’08? ’07? It was kind of crazy. I remember seeing all the faces we had, and just going through that. I guess I probably didn’t really look too much into it, just because I didn’t know any different.”

Since then, Cain has helped groom a wave of young pitchers.

“When I first came up, even spring training, he was one of the first guys to come and talk to me,” Bumgarner told me Friday. “And I was just trying to stay out of the way at that point. At that time I was 19 maybe. So I wanted to kind of just be quiet and take care of my stuff and all that. But he made me feel welcome, like one of the guys.”

Bumgarner, who is working out with the Giants in between minor-league tune-ups, said he has used Cain as a sounding board for years.

“He’s about as professional as a guy can be, I’ll say that for sure,” Bumgarner said. “He’s kind of been through it all, really. He’s seen all sides of what baseball kind of has to offer. And he’s handled everything as good as a guy can handle it.”

Even this. Even a seven-game personal losing streak. Even a potential demotion from the starting rotation. Even the increasing possibility that this may be Everyman’s final stretch in a Giants uniform.

You can columnist writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.