Matt Cain’s final start stirs reflection from Dave Righetti

San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti shifted in his shoes as he pondered the magnitude of Matt Cain’s final start as a Giant, the final start of his career:

“This is Marichal-like, this is Perry-like.”

With just 24 hours until that moment would hit, Righetti took a moment to reflect on what stood out about Cain’s career –from the perspective of a pitching coach that had seen every pitch.

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the Giants clubhouse at AT&T Park.

Righetti recalled something former director of minor league player development Shane Turner said of young-prospect Cain:

“Make sure you tell Matt, ‘don’t forget to be a kid, you’re allowed to have fun and be a child.’”

Righetti, with the Giants since 2000, is one of the very few within the organization who’s watched each of the longest-tenured Giant’s steps toward maturity. He watched Cain skip adolescence and jump right into a leadership role.

He watched Cain as a 17-year-old throwing heat in the minors, oversaw his rise as a young 20-year-old making his debut on a 2005 Giants team with an average age of about 32.

He watched Cain bridge an awkward gap following the Barry Bonds era and transform into one of the game’s most feared righties — His perfect game, his three All-Star years, his three series-clinchers in the 2012 postseason. His White House “turkey taps.”

“Rags” saw Cain spin gem after gem, knowing a loss was probably on the line for most of them — Cain pitched 120 games in which he got 2 or fewer runs of support, winning only 13 of them in his entire career.

He watched Cain take it all like a pro and he watched Cain’s stoic demeanor harden:

“He went through long periods where, it didn’t matter how much he was gonna throw, he wasn’t necessarily going to get a win.”

Cain never really got to be a kid and had little time to simmer in his rookie status. After a rough go in 2006, in which he’d tally a 7.04 ERA in seven starts, a young Cain was pushed into a meeting with general manager Brian Sabean, manager Felipe Alou, bullpen coach Mark Gardner and Righetti to discuss his future with the team. Cain dictated his fate, said Righetti, and Sabean was buying it:

“Just a feeling [Sabean] had about Cain that he was gonna learn more about getting better here with us than it was going back to the minors again.”

Cain levied Sabean’s vote of confidence right in his next start with a one-hitter in Oakland. An already hyped Bay Area was starting to get an idea of the role Matt Cain would play in their lives. Something was missing, said Righetti:

“We also knew he was going to need a little something different to get rid of these hitters.”

He developed a changeup, and doubled its use from 2006 season to 2007 (5.8 percent to 10.4 percent, according to Fangraphs, with it going up steadily through his peak years), said Righetti:

“The changeup, I think, made him a star. The guy who started the All-Star Game and won playoff games and series games, that guy had a good changeup, which he didn’t have when he came up.”

Cain’s quick transformation into a team leader spawned in tandem with his out-pitch:

“That wasn’t a moment, that was just maturity.”

If you’re thinking 32 is a young age to retire, you’re right. And, yes, 33 is young, too — he turns 33 Sunday, on the long-awaited final game of this horrendous 2017 season. 33 is young even in baseball, where a 38-year-old player turns 60 the second he sprints onto the field. It’s like dog years. But Cain’s 13-year career, his longevity and responsibilities, aged him.

Cain was young by any industry’s standards when he made his way to San Francisco, permanently. The Barry Bonds era was on its way out, the Bruce Bochy era was just a few years in waiting.

Bochy’s Giant dynasty that reigned in the earlier part of this decade came to fruition with the rise of Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Tim Lincecum. But Cain anchored the movement on his broad shoulders.

Despite unimpressive career numbers inflated by four years of injury-plagued mediocrity, a mostly-absent crowd showed up in droves to remember Matt Cain, the young, mature star with a high-90s fastball who helped right the ship.

Saturday afternoon, Cain put the team on his back once more and, in keeping with tradition, got a good “Cain-ing” in the Giant’s 3-2 loss at the hands of the Padres, the team against whom he suffered such fate so many times.

Cain dealt 5 shutout innings and allowed just two hits. His team, true to form, gave him one run — earned when Hunter Pence beat out a potential double play, and fell flat on his face, to score Pablo Sandoval, a couple of old friends doing good for a favorite teammate.

For once, he was in line for a win. But in a matter of moments after Cain’s emotional departure, Wil Myers tied the game with a solo shot off Reyes Moronta. The Giants took the lead again on Pence’s RBI single in the seventh, but Sam Dyson blew his third save in the ninth to give the Padres a nice win.

One final Cain-ing, it only felt right.

There was a scare that Cain would get the boot after a leadoff walk to Cory Spangenberg in the fifth. Bruce Bochy trotted out to the mound to a chorus of boos.

No one wanted Cain’s final moment to be a four-pitch walk, said Bochy:

“I said to Matty, ‘they’re on me, I can’t take you out.”

Cain knew it was up to him:

“I was done at that time, but I just told him ‘I’ll get you a couple more outs.’ and that’s when that little extra just kicked in.”

Cain’s final outs in order: Hunter Renfroe flied out to Denard Span, Austin Hedges struck out swinging and pitcher Jhoulys Chacin grounded out on a curveball to Brandon Crawford. First baseman Sandoval clutched the ball.

The stoic demeanor Cain held over 13 years shattered as he embraced Bochy and took one more Buster Hug near the dugout. He waved to a cheering crowd before launching his hat deep into the sea of orange and black.

Bumgarner was waiting at the end of a teammate hug line in the dugout to give Cain the biggest bear hug, built up over years since their first camp, said Cain:

“He and I connected really well at our first spring training together when we saw each other. When we were facing the Dodgers he came up to me and was like ‘hey, how do I get Manny Ramirez out?’ and I said ‘throw him hard in.’ All he did from there is throw him 95 hard in and I knew from there that I was going to love this kid.”

Righetti, though, was the first man waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and Cain met him for a long embrace.

Cain seemed to be holding it together in the clubhouse before the last, and perhaps least impactful of his many big career moments. But a moment with his pitching coach pre-game cracked his stoic shell:

“That changed once Rags came over to me, about an hour-fifteen before the game and was like ‘do you want to go over these guys?’ And that’s when it hit me that it’ll be the last time we get to do this, and that’s when it started to settle in. … This will be the last time we do this for real now”

Righetti has 17 years pocketed as the Giants’ pitching coach, and Cain has taken up at least 13 of them, not counting the handful of years Cain was under a watchful eye in the minors. Righetti was the only pitching coach Cain would have in his big league career. The hurler said:

“You respect it, you don’t expect it but you definitely respect it.”

Cain grew up a Giant. Cain watched his teammates grow up Giants. Now, said Righetti, he can fall back:

“The day after he retires he gets to be young again.”


Shayna Rubin is SFBay’s San Francisco Giants beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShaynaRubin on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Giants baseball.