Cain steps out of shadows and into history with perfect game

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Matt Cain was always there. His teammate, Tim Lincecum, might be the Freak, but Cain was the Fixture. The foundation that the San Francisco Giants pitching staff was built on.

And for years, Cain, 27, had flirted with the kind of performance he had on Wednesday night. Giants management and players like to say that every time he takes the mound, Cain brings no-hit stuff.

Against the Astros, he went beyond that. When Joaquin Arias fielded a groundball at third base and made a tremendous turn-and-throw to Brandon Belt at first -- who stretched to make the catch -- Cain, the longest tenured Giant, completed a perfect game. It was the 22nd in major league history, but the first in the 128-years of the Giants franchise.

Among the Giants who never experienced perfection: Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell, Sal Maglie, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry.

And Tim Lincecum.

In recent years, Lincecum has been the face of the Giants franchise, the pitcher who earned the big awards and national recognition. But Cain -- who has never seemed to be bothered by, and may have actually liked the excess of, the attention his teammate received -- was the backbone of the rotation. While the baseball world marveled at how Lincecum delivered, Cain received no such accolades. There is nothing mysterious about Cain, a big, strong pitcher who throws hard and gets people out. Though the immediate storyline nationally may be that Cain stepped up at a perfect time this season, as Lincecum is struggling, that spin doesn't play in the Giants clubhouse. Cain has been stepping up his entire career.

With his 14 strikeouts on Wednesday night, Cain matched one other pitcher who struck out that many while throwing a perfect game: Sandy Koufax. That seems appropriate, because Cain has always harkened back to another era: the 1960s or even earlier. Last month, when the Giants played the Cubs in a "turn back the century" game, Cain looked right at home in circa-1912 flannels.

He has been the anti-21st century athlete: steady, constant and not the least bit flashy. He debuted with the Giants on August 29, 2005 at age 20. In his early years he was a constant victim of a lack of run support; it became so bad that the team beat writers coined the phrase "getting Cained" for a quality start that resulted in a loss. It was sweet irony for Cain that on Wednesday night his team unleashed a flood of runs to support his historic outing as San Francisco won 10-0.

No matter the circumstances, Cain was always steady, unflappable. After every hard-luck loss, he answered questions, never pointed fingers or hinted at frustration. He just kept going out and doing his job. He was the ultimate teammate.

So it was fitting that in the biggest moment of his career, he made sure to be surrounded by his teammates. In the postgame press conference, he brought his catcher Buster Posey and his rightfielder, Gregor Blanco, whose diving, sliding, snow-cone grab on the warning track of Jordan Schafer's apparent extra-base hit saved perfection in the seventh inning and seemed a clear sign that something special was happening.

"What were you even doing there?" Cain asked Blanco.

As for Posey, Cain said he trusted him every step of the way.

"I can't thank Buster enough," Cain said. "I never questioned him once."

The wild celebration on the mound was reminiscent of the Giants' World Series championship year in 2010. The fans stood and roared in appreciation, every seat filled, everyone standing, through Cain's 25th, 26th and 27th outs and late into the night after the game was complete.

"It was so exhilarating sharing this with them," Cain said.

The fans have been waiting to celebrate with Cain for a long time. In the 2010 postseason, Cain didn't give up an earned run in 21 1/3 innings of work. When he exited Game 2 of the World Series in San Francisco (the Giants would clinch the title in Texas) in the eighth inning with a runner on base, the ovation was deafening. But Cain, old school soul that he's always been, didn't tip his cap to the crowd.

"Aw, you can't do it with runners on base," Cain said at the time. "It just didn't seem right. But it is really cool"

Wednesday night was really cool, too.

The Giants opened this season with Cain as a major question mark. He was embarking on the last year of his contract and a top talking point was whether the Giants could keep him in the fold, since they still had to deal with Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner. Those fears went unfounded when, hours before the season opened, Cain signed a six-year $127 million contract, making him the highest paid righthanded pitcher in baseball history.

Some critics questioned the wisdom of the move. No one was questioning it on Wednesday night.

When manager Bruce Bochy finally reached his pitcher to congratulate him, Cain laughed.

"This is stupid," he said.

What his teammates think is "stupid" is that Cain doesn't get the recognition that he deserves. His perfect game came at 1 a.m. eastern time.

"He has one of the best arms in the game," Posey said. "Stay up late and watch him."