SAN FRANCISCO -- The beautiful thing about Matt Cain is there's nothing vague about him, nothing obscure, nothing theoretical. Ask him a question, he gives you an answer. Approach him with something offbeat, and he has nothing to say. "Haven't thought about it." Give him a baseball, he pitches it directly -- fastball, curveball, slider, change-up -- until the manager takes the baseball away from him.
And if you give him a baseball in a World Series (San Francisco going mad, everybody watching, baseball history on every pitch!) he still pitches it directly -- fastball, curveball, slider, change-up -- until the manager takes the baseball away from him.
"Execute your pitches," he says when asked the secret. Cain is having a postseason for the ages. He threw 7 2/3 shutout innings Thursday in the Giants first-tense-then-absurd 9-0 victory over Texas in Game 2 of the World Series. He threw seven shutout innings last time out against Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series. He threw 6 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run in the NLDS against Atlanta the time before that. That's 21 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run.
What is the secret? Magic? Voodoo? Luck?
"Execute your pitches," he says.
Here's a scene from Thursday's game, back when it was a game, fifth inning, neither team had scored, Ian Kinsler led off for the Rangers. He smashed a long fly ball to center. Cain knew that it was probably gone. Two strikes, and Cain had thrown a 91-mph fastball up and away -- key word there being "up," he had left that pitch up -- and Kinsler jumped on it, and yes Cain looked and thought it was gone. He saw it soar to center and saw it hit something and come back into the field of play. Great. Rangers 1-0.
"I thought it hit something behind the wall," he would say. "I thought it was a home run. So I cashed it in as one run."
This is how he pitches. Home run. OK. Time to move on. Only then he turned back around and saw Giants centerfielder Andres Torres throwing the ball back in. The ball, preposterously, had hit the very top of the wall and bounced back into the field of play. It was a 1-in-10,000 moment, a ridiculous thing. Kinsler was stuck on second base. There was nobody out, so Kinsler still had an excellent shot of scoring the first run of game.
And, of course, he didn't score. Cain teased David Murphy into chasing an outside slider and popping out to short. One out. Cain threw three straight pitches -- slider, slider, change-up -- to almost precisely the same spot on the outside corner and Rangers catcher Matt Treanor grounded the last one to short. Two outs. After an intentional walk, Cain got opposing pitcher C.J. Wilson to to ground out to first and that was the end of that.
"He made his pitches," Rangers manager Ron Washington would say.
Made his pitches. Executed his pitches. Bore down. Hit his spots. Didn't give in. Cain doesn't just speak in cliches, it seems that the only way to speak about him is in cliches. That might be because Matt Cain as a pitcher is kind of a cliche -- he's a "bulldog," a "gamer," a "horse" who "packs his lunch pail" and "guts it out" and "never gives in" and "keeps you in the game." The Fox scouting report before Thursday's game was simply this: "Cain is a pitcher, not a thrower." OK, then.
There has been quite a bit of talk about Cain in the statistical community this postseson because of a little statistic called xFIP. That stands for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which sounds complicated but is actually pretty easy to explain. The xFIP concept is that pitchers can control three things and only three things -- home runs allowed, walks (and hit-by-pitches), strikeouts. The rest, according to the theory, is a blur of luck and defense and other things that are beyond a pitcher's control. So xFIP measures a player based on those three things (with a few adjustments).
It's a fascinating concept -- a concept with both fanatical supporters and fanatical critics -- and year after year xFIP suggests that Matt Cain isn't especially good. The xFIP is supposed to more or less match ERA, but while Cain's career ERA is 3.45, his career xFIP is 4.43. Every single year, his ERA has been lower, usually substantially lower, than his xFIP.
The New York Times, in their postseason blog, created a bit of a Twitter stir by saying that Cain, based largely on his xFIP numbers, looked more like a "league-average innings eater than a shutdown star."
But, as Bugs Bunny once said about defying gravity because he never studied law, Cain seems quite willing to keep getting people out despite the various theories that suggest he can't. Is he an anomaly? Is he on an absurdly lucky hot streak that will soon come crashing to an end? Is he simply doing what traditional baseball people say he should be doing which would include "inducing contact" and "challenging hitters" and, of course, "executing his pitches?"
And it takes us all the way back to the beautiful thing about Matt Cain: You know he is not thinking about it. The manager gives him the ball. He takes it. He pitches it. He follows the plan. It's a job -- a fun job, a challenging job, an exciting job, sure, but a job.
The Rangers had runners on second and third, one out, sixth inning, and it was time to go to work. He threw the best fastball he had on the inner half to Nelson Cruz, who was looking for something outside and popped out to first. He challenged Kinsler with another high fastball and Kinsler flew out. Three outs. End of inning. Job done.
"I mean, he executed his pitches," Giants catcher Buster Posey would say.
The Rangers are in big trouble here in the series, no question about that now. They blundered through Game 1 with their star, Cliff Lee, starting. And they were overwhelmed by Lee, and then they they simply melted down in Game 2. The game was 1-0 going into the seventh -- a terrific pitching battle between Cain and C.J. Wilson -- when Rangers manager Ron Washington began to make inscrutable moves such as allowing lefty Darren Oliver to face righty Juan Uribe with a runner on second (his righty, Darren O'Day had been warming for two innings). Uribe blooped in a run-scoring single. He might have done that against O'Day too.
But there's simply no explaining the eighth inning: O'Day started the inning, struck out the first two batters of the inning and then allowed a soft ground ball to Buster Posey that became a single. And then Washington pulled O'Day to match up his lefty, Derek Holland, against the Giants lefty Nate Schuerholz. That would be Nate Schierholtz, who hit .242 and slugged .366 this year. Washington had to get the match-up advantage there.
Well, Holland threw 12 balls in 13 pitches -- making World Series history by becoming the first pitcher to throw 10 or more pitches and throw only one strike. Why didn't Washington have someone up in the bullpen throwing? "I thought he would correct himself," Washington said.
Holland's third walk scored a run, giving the Giants a 3-0 lead. Washington, realizing then that a course-correction was not coming, brought Mark Lowe came in. He walked Juan Uribe and gave up a single to Edgar Renteria. That made it 6-0. At this point, in came lefty Michael Kirkman, which sparked Giants manager Bruce Bochy to bring in right pinch-hitter Aaron Rowand. He hit a triple. Andres Torres followed with a double. And that's how we got to 9-0.
"Did you consider using Neftali Feliz," a reporter asked Washington -- Feliz being the Rangers' closer and best reliever.
"I didn't at all," Washington said. And Feliz, having not pitched in Game 1 or 2, will be well-rested for the Texas portion of the series.
Yes, the Rangers are in big trouble. Of course, things can turn as the series shifts back to Texas, but history is against the Rangers. The Giants became the first team in World Series history to score 20 or more runs in winning the first two games. They were a below-average offensive team the entire year. But, no matter what the names may look like, they don't look like a below-average team now. The Rangers sent their two best pitchers out there. And they still cannot figure out how to get the Giants out.
Of course, Cain remains grounded through it all. We're in good position, he said. There's a lot of baseball left, he said. We've been lucky, he said. He wants to stay ahead in the count, he said. Simple. Real. Tangible. The questions in the postgame conference were about the intangible -- Cain's place in history and whether or not he has ever pitched this well and all that sort of thing. He shrugged it off. At one point someone asked him if he would come up with a nickname for himself. "We don't nickname ourselves," he said.
And as he talked, I was reminded of my favorite Matt Cain answer of the postseason. It was on Wednesday, and the talk was about nerves, and the question was this: "How do you sleep the night before a start in the World Series?"
And Matt Cain's answer was this: "Close your eyes."