SAN FRANCISCO – Matt Cain’s stoicism always had a higher melting point than most.
Even on an emotional Saturday afternoon, in his final major league start, with adulation filling his ears and nostalgia softening his heart, he remained solid through five shutout innings at AT&T Park.
Then it all pooled. Cain walked off the mound. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said a few words and gave him a hug. Catcher Buster Posey was next to embrace him. And then Cain, in his final moment as a major league pitcher, let it all go.
He took his black Giants hat, the same one he’d worn for 13 seasons and the only one he’d wear as a major league player, and he held it to his chest. Then he flung the cap into the stands.
Final moments on a major league diamond are almost always unscripted and nearly often as messy. This goodbye, amid the Giants’ 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres, was as sparse and tidy as it gets. It was, fittingly for Cain, almost perfect.
In his 331st and final start, Cain held the Padres to two singles, struck out four and completed one of the most decorated careers in Giants history when opposing pitcher Jhoulys Chacin dribbled out to shortstop to end the fifth inning.
He descended the dugout stairs for a series of embraces, some tighter and lingering longer than others. Dave Righetti, the only pitching coach he ever had since his debut, was among the first. Madison Bumgarner, a one-time protégé turned postseason legend, was last. Then came a quick curtain call, and applause that only faded out after Cain gave a final two-armed wave and disappeared down the stairs.
“That’s everything I had right there,” Cain said in an in-game interview with Amy Gutierrez on NBC Sports Bay Area. “Still not sure how we got through those five innings. That was just Buster telling me to keep going out there: `Keep going out there. Let’s find a way to get through five.’
“And just egging me on from the first pitch to coming out of the dugout, the fans were just having a blast with it. And that helped me out a lot. I don’t think I would have made it through any innings if the fans hadn’t pushed me along. I mean, that’s the reason today happened and I can’t thank them enough.”
Cain left with a 1-0 lead but did not receive a victory, and that marked another fitting end of sorts. He lost so many games early in his career because of a chronically malnourished offense that his name became a part of speech. To take a 2-1 loss was to get Cained.
The Padres tied it in the sixth inning when right-hander Reyes Moronta gave up a solo home run to Wil Myers, the sixth that the Padres first baseman has hit at AT&T Park this season. It is also the most right-handed home runs that anyone has hit in this ballpark. Nick Hundley and Hunter Pence have the most among the Giants, with four.
And that tells you: the Giants offense was chronically malnourished this season, too.
They had scored just enough to get within a strike of the handshake line. Hunter Pence face planted in the dirt while beating out a near double play grounder as a run scored in the second inning. Then Pence’s tiebreaking single scored Ryder Jones in the seventh.
But Sam Dyson blew his second consecutive save in a ninth inning that included a throwing error from shortstop Brandon Crawford, and to audible groans, a two-run double from Austin Hedges when the Giants were a strike away from winning.
The Padres’ last-gasp winner sailed over Pence’s head in right field. This time, on Cain’s day, there was no Gregor Blanco to ride to the rescue.
The ninth-inning collapse took little shine off Cain’s career ender, or the minor detail that he did not receive the victory, or that he was winless in his last 15 starts, or that he ended the year with a 3-11 record and 5.43 ERA.
Anyone who sneers at his 104-118 career record didn’t stand along a World Series parade route or pump twinned fists when he threw the only perfect game in the Giants’ 128-year existence, or pin their hopes to him when he arrived as a 20-year-old and delivered a mule kick to a sleeping franchise.
The Giants (63-98) wrestled with how to handle Saturday’s farewell after Cain announced that it would be his final major league start. They did not want a repeat of 2015 at Oakland, when Tim Hudson and Barry Zito opposed each other in a dual goodbye that turned into a slop fest for both respected pitchers.
Cain hadn’t appeared in a big league game since Aug. 31, and four days before that, he had allowed eight runs while retiring two batters in an ugly relief appearance at Arizona. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said he hoped to get a maximum of 60 pitches from Cain, and would be mindful of ending on as close to a perfect C note as possible.
Cain did better than that. With Ted Barrett behind the plate, the same umpire who worked his perfect game in 2012, Cain struck out Myers to end a perfect first inning. He struck out Christian Villanueva on a called pitch while retiring all three batters in the second inning. You began to wonder: would “For Love of the Game” have a sequel, and would Kevin Costner be up for playing Cain?
But Hunter Renfroe led off the third inning with a crisply hit ground single up the middle as right-hander Derek Law began to get loose in the bullpen.
Law and Ty Blach warmed up in the fourth inning, too, and then the fifth. But Cain pitched around Myers’ broken-bat infield single in the fourth. And he came through a bit of drama in the fifth, after he issued a leadoff walk to Cory Spangenberg.
Bochy ambled from the dugout as the crowd theatrically booed him. The manager put two hands on Cain’s shoulders as the infield gathered around them. Then he turned around and walked back to the dugout to wild cheers.
Cain got a deep out from Renfroe. He struck out Austin Hedges when first base umpire called him out on appeal. And there was little chance shortstop Brandon Crawford would misplay Chacin’s weak roller on Cain’s final pitch, a 78 mph curveball.
Yes indeed. The last pitch of his major league life was a curveball to the opposing pitcher. Cain was ornery to the end.
“Some of the adrenaline left early and then it was exhaustion, and just finding a way to get outs,” Cain said. “They ended up making some good defense behind me and those guys put the ball in play early so somehow, it worked out.”
There was just one thing left for Cain to do: wave goodbye, drop his guard and let emotion pool at his cleats.
“It means everything. It really does,” said Cain, his voice breaking. “It’s special to me to be able to wear one uniform and to know that I’ll always be a Giant, and nobody else.
“I don’t want to be anybody else.”
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