AT&T PARK — The San Francisco Giants have officially activated right-hander Johnny Cueto from the 60-day disabled list, and have optioned infielder Kelby Tomlinson to Triple-A Sacramento, the club announced on Thursday.
Cueto will start the series opener on Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals and Luke Weaver at 7:15 p.m., and he will be on a pitch restriction of about 90, manager Bruce Bochy said.
“He’s a guy that helps head up this rotation, along with Bum (Madison Bumgarner), and we were playing so well when he was on the mound,” Bochy said. “It’s great to have him back here. He’s going to bring a lot of life to this club, too.”
The quixotic right-hander with his dozen-or-so deliveries was arguably the best pitcher in baseball over the first month of the season. Adding him and Bumgarner back to a young rotation that’s done just fine in their absence is a massive boost for the Giants as they close in on the All-Star break just 3 1/2 games back of first in the NL West.
In his first five starts, Cueto went 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA, striking out 26 in 32 innings of work. Cueto was still dominant despite feeling some tenderness in his right elbow, starting after an outing against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on April 22.
After the pain worsened over his next two starts, Cueto landed on the disabled list. He was then diagnosed with an elbow sprain by renowned Tommy John surgeon Dr. James Andrews. He threw two rehab starts in late June, striking out 10 in 7 2/3 innings of work and allowing just five hits and one walk.
“It’s huge,” said 25-year old rookie starter Andrew Suarez. “Us young guys, we held it down, but now is when we have our team, the rotation. I’m excited to see him tonight.”
“He’s just so much fun,” Bochy said. “Johnny, he just loves baseball, you hear him in the clubhouse, he’s loose, but at the same time, he’s as tough a competitor as you can get, and he wants to win. You hear him in the dugout, he just has a real passion for the game, along with being a great talent.”
The Giants have weathered Cueto’s absence well. They come back to town having swept the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks, and though they got swept at Colorado, they have won six of their last 10, and 10 of their last 15.
“We’re in the middle of things right now thanks to the really nice things these kids have done for us,” Bochy said.
Derek Holland (31), Chris Stratton (27), Suarez and Dereck Rodriguez (26) have combined for a collective 4.29 ERA this season in 300 1/3 innings of work, as the Giants’ three biggest-ticket arms — Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and Cueto — have spent significant time on the disabled list. Rodriguez and Suarez are in their first seasons at the Major League level. Not all of those arms will stay in the rotation.
“They’re doing what you want them to do, and that’s make these decisions tough,” Bochy said. “You look at the job Suarez did yesterday. Of course, Rodriguez has done a great job. That’s just really nice to see, and realize how much depth you have.”
Suarez has been the most impressive. In six June starts, he went 2-0 with a 2.62 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings to just seven walks. He threw seven innings against the Rockies on Wednesday, and was the hard-luck 1-0 loser, but because he helped save the bullpen, all relievers will be available to give Cueto coverage, including erstwhile starter Derek Holland.
Jeff Samardzija should return to the mound to start on Saturday, giving San Francisco the best approximation of its projected rotation that it’s seen this season. He will have fewer restrictions than Cueto, but could be backed up by Stratton, who threw his regular bullpen on Thursday, and is as good a candidate as any to move to the bullpen once the Giants prune it back to five men.
“Somebody will get bumped out of this rotation,” Bochy said. “Holland already has. He’s all-in for helping us in the bullpen, and we haven’t made a call yet, but somebody else will probably help us in the bullpen. It’s all about everybody wanting the same thing, and everyone helping out in different ways.”
Since Hunter Strickland punched a door and underwent surgery for a broken fifth metacarpal — he will have another X-ray this week — the Giants have had trouble finding a true closer. Tony Watson, Sam Dyson, Reyes Moronta, Will Smith and Mark Melancon have each pitched in the ninth.
While Bochy initially said that Dyson and Watson would trade off the closer role, Smith has emerged as a viable option. Since Strickland went down, he has two saves and a hold in six appearances, with a 1.59 ERA with 10 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings of work.
What makes the left-handed Smith so effective as a potential closer is that he’s been just as effective against lefties (.237 BAA) as against righties (.249 BAA) in his career.
“I don’t think he could pitch in the ninth; I think he can and will pitch in the ninth,” Bochy said. “He’s one of the guys that we would use there in that spot. He’s been throwing the ball very well. I have no problem pitching Will there. He’s part of the solution there for that ninth inning.”