What Is Wrong with Matt Cain, and Can the Giants Win If He Isn't Great?

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What Is Wrong with Matt Cain, and Can the Giants Win If He Isn't Great?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Matt Cain has allowed six runs in two 2012 playoff starts.

With the San Francisco Giants' season on the line in the decisive Game 5 of their NLDS with the Cincinnati Reds, Matt Cain pitched—well, he pitched a pretty good game.

In 5.2 innings, the Giants' No. 1 starter allowed three runs and six hits. It wasn't even a quality start for Cain, if that's a statistic you buy into. But, the effort was good enough for Cain to earn the win, thanks largely to Buster Posey's fifth-inning grand slam

"Good enough" doesn't exactly inspire confidence, of course—especially when compared to the complete game, 11-strikeout, four-hit shutout Justin Verlander threw against the Oakland Athletics hours later in the Detroit Tigers' ALDS clincher. 

But is "good enough" from Cain enough for the Giants to win the NLCS and the World Series? Is that the best to be expected from him while facing the best competition during the postseason? Or, should San Francisco be concerned that their No. 1 starter doesn't have the look of an ace as the team goes into its next playoff series?

One of the reasons for concern over Cain's postseason performance, thus far, is because he was untouchable during the Giants' last playoff run in 2010. In three starts that October, Cain didn't allow a single earned run over 21.1 innings. He allowed 13 hits while also striking out 13 batters and walking seven. 

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Matt Cain is struggling to find his 2010 postseason form.
Compare that to Cain's numbers after two starts in this year's postseason. In his two appearances, Cain has given up six runs and 11 hits (three of them home runs) in 10.2 innings. He's notched nine strikeouts versus three walks.

So, what's happened to Cain? He went into the playoffs on as strong a note as a starting pitcher could. In each of his final five starts of the regular season, Cain allowed two runs or fewer. He didn't give up more than one run in three of those appearances. 

For the season overall, Cain was one of the best pitchers in the NL and a contender for the Cy Young award.

His 2.79 ERA was the league's fourth-best mark. His 1.04 WHIP ranked second. Opposing batters hit .222 against Cain, the third-best average among NL starting pitchers. He also finished in the league's top 10 with 16 wins and 193 strikeouts. 

But perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that Cain would struggle once the postseason began. The Cincinnati Reds weren't an ideal matchup for him. During the regular season, Cain faced the Reds twice. He gave up eight runs and 16 hits in 13 innings, resulting in a 5.54 ERA. 

Either of the Giants' possible opponents in the NLCS could give Cain problems, as well. In his one start against the Washington Nationals, Cain allowed three runs and six hits in 6.2 innings, notching only four strikeouts. Pitching against the St. Louis Cardinals twice this season, he gave up nine runs and 16 hits in 11.2 innings. 

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The Giants need Matt Cain to pitch like an ace in the playoffs.
As it is, Cain might make only one start in the NLCS. Pitching in Game 5 versus Cincinnati on Thursday (Oct. 11) means he won't be available until Game 3 of the series. If the NLCS ends up going to a seventh game, however, the schedule would allow Cain to pitch Game 7 on four days' rest. 

Cain seems to know why he didn't pitch so well against the Reds in the NLDS. As he explained to MLB.com's Corey Brock, Cain didn't have his usual good command. In particular, he left pitches up high in the strike zone.

He also hinted that he may have been too amped up, trying to blow the ball by hitters rather than make good pitches. Perhaps, the pressure of being the Giants' No. 1 pitcher in the playoffs got to him a bit. That shouldn't be a problem, now that he'll start Game 3 of the NLCS—unless the Giants lose the first two games of the series and badly need him to get a win. 

If that's the case, San Francisco will need the vintage Cain of 2010. But to win the World Series, the Giants likely need him to pitch at that level throughout the rest of the postseason anyway.

 

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