Giants Pitching Is Impressive
by Glenn Dickey
May 22, 2006

THE BIG story in the weekend Giants-Aís series was Barry Bondsí 714th career home run on Saturday, but for Giants fans, the most significant story had to be their starting pitching.

Noah Lowry started it out with a fine effort on Friday night, though his former college teammate, Dan Haren, won the 1-0 duel. Jason Schmidt, who is definitely back to his 2004 form, had another strong effort as the Giants won in 10 innings on Saturday. And then, Matt Cain was brilliant in a one-hit complete game shutout yesterday.

Cainís effort was by far the most important for the Giants because he had been struggling, so much so that his turn had been skipped the last time out, so he could get some bullpen work with pitching coach Dave Righetti and bullpen coach Mark Gardner.

There has never been any doubt about Cainís ability. He has a fast ball which was consistently in the 95-97 mph range on the Coliseum radar gun yesterday and the breaking pitches to complement it. But he hadnít been able to control his pitches consistently, and he had paid for it.

When he was in the minors, Cain had control problems but could usually overcome them by just throwing his fast ball. On the big league level, the game changes because the hitters will eventually catch up to even the best fast balls, if thatís all they see. A pitcher has to have at least one other pitch he can throw for a strike, so hitters canít just wait for the fast ball at critical times.

Yesterday, Cain struggled some with his command early, but after he got out of a bases-loaded situation in the third by getting Mark Kotsay to ground out, he cruised. The only hit he allowed came in that third inning, a double by Jay Payton. He was getting all his pitches where he wanted them, and the Aís were helpless. There were no particularly hard-hit balls after that, no tough chances for the Giants defense. Cain called it the best game heís pitched for the Giants, and it was also probably the best game any Giants pitcher has had this year.

Cainís effort was also a plus for another reason: Giants manager Felipe Alou didnít have to go to his bullpen, which has been shaky all year.

There will probably be more setbacks for Cain, who is only 21, but he has the confidence to overcome them. He also has the ability to be a top of the rotation pitcher, perhaps even the staff leader if Schmidt, whose contract is up after this year, leaves as a free agent.

For now, it would be perfect for the Giants if Cain could settle into the No. 3 slot behind Schmidt and Lowry. Matt Morris will probably be fine if expectations for him are reduced. He pitched well in Houston in his last outing, when the Giants were in that hitting orgy which produced 34 runs in three games. Thatís the kind of run support Morris got consistently when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he wonít get it often from the Giants. Without it, heís probably a .500 pitcher, which is all right if heís the No. 4 pitcher in the rotation.

STARTING PITCHING will have to continue to be a strength for the Giants if they are to have a shot at the postseason.

The bullpen is a question mark, and it will probably remain so. Armando Benitez doesnít inspire confidence as the closer, coming off serious surgery last season and with a history of blowing up in critical moments.

More seriously, Alouís handling of the bullpen has created many problems. Itís not just that he uses so many relievers but that he has them warming up all the time, which takes a toll on them, even if they donít come in the game. During Alouís tenure, the Giants have gone through relievers like Kleenex. Itís rare that a reliever has had two consecutive good years under Alou. You have to wonder, too, when a pitcher like Tyler Walker, who was alternately good and terrible for the Giants, goes to Tampa Bay and becomes a very effective closer.

Despite the outburst in Houston, in a park where theyíve won 20 of 25 games against the Astros, the Giants offense is still suspect. It will become even more so if opposing National League managers study the videos of Bonds more closely.

The Aís, who do an excellent job of scouting inter-league opponents, pitched to Bonds in this series as he should be. He was walked intentionally in critical situations, but otherwise, they pitched to him. Aís manager Ken Macha realized what NL managers apparently have not yet: This is not the 2004 Bonds. He is still dangerous but nothing like the hitter he was. That hitter is now Albert Pujols.

Opposing managers have done the Giants a favor by walking Bonds so frequently because itís given the Giants another baserunner. If they start pitching intelligently to Bonds, as the Aís did, the Giants offense will probably be less effective.

THE OTHER imponderable is the NL West. After last season, the NL West has been considered the weakest division in baseball, but at this point, that distinction would seem to have been ďearnedĒ by the AL West. At 23-21, the Giants are tied for fourth/last in their division. At 22-21, the Aís are tied for first in their division.

The difference since last season is the improvement of Colorado and Arizona, probably the worst team in baseball by the end of the 2004 season. There are no longer any soft touches in the division, and it would be very difficult to predict the eventual division winner at this point.

The Cardinals, with Pujols and a strong overall lineup, will provide a stiff challenge in the three-game series which starts tonight at PacBell, especially since the Giants are down to the end of their rotation. But itís a long season, and the showing of their three starters against the Aís gives hope that the Giants will be in the race for the postseason all the way.

LETTERS: I updated this section late yesterday.

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