Giants' title defense begins with Cain on hill
Following memorable season, right-hander gets first Opening Day nod
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- At a point in his career where he's thinking more about giving back, Matt Cain is being given a fresh opportunity.
Cain will receive the first Opening Day start of his rich career when the Giants begin their World Series title defense Monday against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Tim Lincecum, he of the back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards, started the previous four openers. Following a season in which he threw a perfect game, earned a victorious decision in the All-Star Game and started the finale of each postseason series for the Giants, Cain has finally achieved the distinction merited by most pitchers of his stature.
W: Kershaw L: Kontos
"I think it'll be memorable for me, because it's my first time doing it with the Giants [after having been] with these guys for so long," Cain said recently. "It's one of those spots that you have to work and earn to get to, and it's been great to do that over the years. It's an honor to pitch Opening Day and I'm looking forward to it, but once the rotation goes around, it's all the same. All five of us feel like we're the No. 1 and No. 2 guys, and it doesn't matter. We feel like every day, we have a real good chance to win."
Cain's willing to share more than the spotlight. As the longest-tenured Giant, teammates often seek his advice regarding clubhouse protocol. His wise man's role is partly official, given his status as the club's representative to the Players Association. His leadership also reflects the respect he commands.
During Spring Training, two of the organization's most promising starters, right-hander Chris Heston and left-hander Mike Kickham, approached Cain with the intent of tapping his knowledge. What's your between-starts routine like? How do you prepare yourself on game day? Who can help you get the most out of your valuable arm?
Heston, MLB.com's eighth-ranked Giants prospect, said that he and Kickham (No. 12) had more than one conversation with Cain to gain understanding about "things he obviously knows how to do and us younger guys are going to need to know how to do at that level. He was awesome. There's no problem going up to him and talking to him. He might look a little intimidating, but he's a great guy. Anything I had a question about, he had an answer. I'd like to thank him for it."
None of this is extremely unusual. It's part of the circle of athletic life, a time-honored custom repeated by veteran players sharing experience with those hungry to attain it. What's intriguing is that Cain, 28, has arrived at approximately the same juncture in his career that his primary mentor, Matt Morris, had reached when they initially met as Giants.
Morris came to San Francisco as a free agent before the 2006 season having accumulated 163 decisions (101-62) in 237 Major League games spanning nine years with St. Louis. He missed the 1999 season due to injury. Cain approaches the 2013 campaign with 163 decisions (85-78) in 236 outings as he enters his eighth full season.
San Francisco Giants
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
Former outfielder Randy Winn, who also counseled younger Giants during his 2005-09 stint with the team, politely dismissed the numerical parallels as pure coincidence.
"You become 'the veteran' at different times," Winn said, noting that through much of his 13-year career, whether he was considered a young or old player depended on his teammates' average age.
Regardless of the numbers, Cain senses an obligation to continue the tradition Morris perpetuated.
"It's kind of freaky to think about it," Cain said. "There are times when I'm thinking, 'This is about the time that Mo came over.' He was coming up on close to nine or 10 years. Thinking about that when I first came in [to the Majors], I'm like, 'God, that's forever.' Now here I am looking back and it feels like just yesterday we started doing this. And it's kind of your duty to talk to the guys who are coming up who are going to be taking your spot at some point. That's kind of the way baseball is. It kind of rotates. You want those guys to come up here and do well. You're just trying to relay the knowledge that somebody gave you, because you want their learning curve to be smaller than yours. It's just part of being a good teammate."
Told of Cain's sharing insight with Heston and Kickham, Morris sounded clearly pleased. He observed that the people who have the earliest influence on one's career frequently leave the most enduring impression. For example, Morris' guides included Cardinals pitchers Darryl Kile, Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre.
"I still think about those guys and what they did for me to this day," said Morris, who last pitched in 2008. He recalled that upon joining the Giants, catcher Mike Matheny, another ex-Cardinal, told him that Cain, whose big league career consisted of seven starts at that point, was destined to become a special performer.
"It didn't take long to figure that out," Morris said. "He comes from a good family and he's always been a solid, stand-up kid. He was respectful. He was willing to learn. ... To see him have the success that he's had brings a smile to my face. I don't watch baseball religiously, not at the level I used to, but just to see him out there doing those things is one of those proud moments."
Morris added, "He was probably better than us at the time, anyway, but we didn't let him know it, so that kept him at bay for a while."
Asked what he bequeathed to Cain, Morris remembered nothing specific but said that he tried to get the young right-hander to believe in building camaraderie and adopt "winning techniques," from taking extra bunting practice to dining with the other pitchers.
Winn observed Cain's growth and Morris' role in it.
"Matt was such an eager listener," said Winn, one of several former Giants players who served as a guest instructor during Spring Training. "You could tell he was soaking it all in and he was applying it. He was doing all the things that he should have done. He was working hard. He made a huge effort to change his body. He made an effort to get ahead in counts.
"These are all things I'm sure that Matt [Morris] talked to him about."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.