Matt Cain pitched like an ace for the first time since Opening Day on Sunday night.
He went 7.1 innings and allowed only one run to lower his ERA from 6.49 to 5.57. He also earned his first victory of the season. One scout in attendance told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports that Cain was "sharp as hell, he's fine." However, some of the issues that plagued him at the beginning of the season still appeared to be present in his win against the Dodgers.
So far this year, Cain has been prone to the long ball and hard contact, particularly against right-handed hitters. Righties have put up an .820 OPS with six home runs off Cain so far this season, while lefties have managed only a .675 OPS.
Cain has been lowering his arm slot and dragging his arm. This mechanical flaw causes his slider to back up and hang over the middle of the plate instead of moving down and away to righties. It also causes his fastball to leak back in toward righties. He's been having a hard time getting the ball to his glove side—away from righties.
Giants feel like Cain's arm angle has sometimes dropped in his early starts, flattening out his stuff.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 6, 2013
Despite the fact that he allowed only run, the hard contact against him was somewhat concerning.
In the first inning, Nick Punto lined out to center. Andre Ethier just missed a home run to the warning track in right field to end the inning.
In the second inning, A.J. Ellis lined out to center and Dee Gordon lined out to left surrounding a Juan Uribe line-drive single. Ellis just missed a home run to the warning track in left to start the fourth. Crawford then lined out to right again in the fifth.
With one out in the sixth, Ethier and Ellis lined back-to-back singles. Cain then seemed to slow his motion down a bit, which helped him keep his arm slot up. He retired six straight on weakly hit balls before walking Matt Kemp with one out in the eighth to end his outing.
The results were good for Cain. He allowed five hits, three walks, one run and no home runs while striking out four. The Dodgers didn't have much luck on balls in play, however.
There were the six aforementioned hard outs, two of which nearly left the park. The Dodgers went just 5-for-23 on balls in play against Cain. If a few of those hard hit balls had dropped, the narrative would have been much different.
Yet preventing hits on balls in play and home runs on fly balls has defined Cain's incredible career. While the average pitcher allows a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of around .290, Cain has a career BABIP of .264.
The average pitcher typically allows around 10 percent of his fly balls to leave the yard. Cain—an extreme fly ball pitcher—has allowed just 7 percent of fly balls to go for home runs in his career.
Cain got his first win of the year and pitched into the eighth inning for the first time. He also showed good stuff.
His fastball was consistently between 90-93 miles per hour. His 86-88 mile-per-hour slider was his most consistent pitch throughout the night. That was the best Cain's slider has looked since the six shutout innings he threw against the Dodgers on Opening Day.
He also had some success with his 84-87 mile-per-hour changeup and 78-81 mile-per-hour curve.
Cain's velocity is just about as good as it was last year when he threw a perfect game and was the ace of the staff. The issue for him going forward isn't the stuff, it's his command. To command the ball better within the strike zone and avoid the hard contact that has plagued him thus far in 2013, Cain will need to be able to maintain his delivery and arm slot more consistently.
Slowing down the delivery to stay more on top of the ball seemed to work against the Dodgers. Baseball is a game of constant adjustments. Sometimes you have to adjust to the opponent. Other times, you have to make mechanical adjustments as you fight yourself. Right now, Cain is battling himself more than the opposition.
Per Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News, Cain said of his rough start to the season, "In my mind, I really just think it has been bad pitching...My arm has felt great and the body has felt great. It’s just tweaking it a little bit.”
The box score showed Cain to be an ace again Sunday night, even if there was more hard contact than he would have liked. The Giants will still take the final result and gain some optimism about their Opening Day starter.
Fans tend to be outcome-oriented. If Cain allowed only one run, he must have pitched great. The reality is that while he got the Dodgers out 22 times while allowing only one run, he didn't necessarily pitch as well as that would indicate.
He battled himself all night until delivering a one-two-three seventh. He limited the damage, but some of that was out of his control. Hard hit balls found gloves and the Giants swept the Dodgers and moved into sole possession of first place in the NL West. All was right in the world.
However, if you dig a little deeper, the Giants ace was clearly still trying to find himself. He can build on this result, but he isn't all the way back just yet.
If Ryan Vogelsong can't get back to being the outstanding pitcher he was over the last two seasons, and if Tim Lincecum can't get back to being the someone he used to be, the Giants will need Cain this season more than ever.
In front of a national audience Sunday night, he took a giant step in the right direction.