ORACLE PARK — Bruce Bochy lives a six-minute walk from Oracle Park, in a condo on King Street. Walking to or from the ballpark, he hasn’t looked up enough to see a banner with his mug on it gracing the side of the ballpark. He’s usually trying to avoid getting hit by some form of mass transit.
After a game like Monday night’s — a 6-4 come-from-ahead loss — he had other ideas. “those are the games you don’t miss,” said the retiring San Francisco Giants manager. “They’re gut wrenching. Those are the games that, I walk across the street, I don’t look for the Muni. I’m thinking I’ll feel better if it hits me.”
Games like Tuesday’s, though, with Johnny Cueto dancing his way back to the Oracle Park mound for the first time since Tommy John surgery 13 months ago in 13 months, those are the games that make Bochy smile.
“It’s going to be good to see Johnny out there, doing his thing,” Bochy said. “It’s easy, if you’re in a situation like Johnny’s, you can be comfortable, obviously, you’re set for life, but he wants to get back and compete, compete at the highest level. It’s taking such great care of yourself work hard to get to this point.”
Signed to be a one-two punch with Madison Bumgarner, Cueto won 18 games and earned his seocnd All-Star nod in his first season with the Giants in 2016, sporting a 2.79 ERA and throwing 219 2/3 innings as San Francisco returned to the playoffs for the first time since their 2014 World Series run.
His second year in San Francisco was a let-down, as he went just 8-8 with a 4.52 ERA and a 1.446 WHIP — the second-worst of his career.
Cueto was once again among the best pitchers in baseball at the start of the 2018 season with a 0.86 ERA, before two starts in Los Angeles got his right elbow barking. After going on and off the injured list, Cueto finally went under the knife. Sticking to a strick running regimen and diet after he underwent surgery last August, Cueto is now in the best shape of his life. “I feel like I’m 19 years old,” Cueto said on Saturday night in Los Angeles.
“He’s been more motivated, to be honest, since I’ve had him,” Bochy said. “You see the shape he’s gotten himself into, just a very determined man to get back on the mound and get back to being the good or great pitcher that he is.”
With San Francisco’s torrid June and July, there was an outside shot that Cueto would return to a team in the thick of a playoff race. Instead, he returns to a Giants team that’s six games under .500 and 11 games back of the second wild card with 18 games left. Bochy said this weekend that the home stretch of this season will help get Cueto’s juices flowing for a productive offseason. If anything, it’s a reward for the lengthy rehab, and the shape he’s kept himself in.
Having Cueto back in the mix — he’ll throw about 70 pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates — also provides a boost for players who will could form the young core of the club going forward, including pitchers Tyler Beede, Logan Webb, Shaun Anderson and Jandel Gustave, infielders Mauricio Dubon and Chris Shaw, and outfielders Jaylin Davis and Joey Rickard.
“Players appreciate other players’ talent, the gifts and talents that they bring,” Bochy said. “And Johnny, you know how good he is, but also, he’s got an entertaining aspect to his game. That’s who he is. He likes to entertain. But he’s got great focus too.”
Bochy cited Cueto’s myriad deliveries — the various arm angles, rhythms and gyrations he brings — as a bit of a throwback. The windup, Bochy said, is somewhat of a lost art, with more efficient and repeatable deliveries being the norm in an age where biomechanics are dissected and analyzed.
“There were some that it seemed like it’s hard to get their timing, either with a slower, big wind up, big leg kick, especially those guys, those lefties that used to hold it, looking at the runner at first, and sometimes they go a little quicker,” Bochy said.
Cueto’s mound manipulations didn’t slow his recovery. To the contrary: He was working at various paces and throwing from various arm angles from his earliest bullpens.
“You know, what’s incredible with all the twists and turns and the quick pitching is his remarkable control,” Bochy said. “That’s where his focus is, and the other part is that it’s become second nature to him. That’s what we appreciate. When you watch him, he’s an artist and he’s done it so long and worked so hard at it, that it’s not about getting attention as much as getting outs.”
Will Smith unavailable: Closer Will Smith — the only active reliever who was on the roster before the month of July — is still battling back inflammation, and is unavailable to pitch.
“He’s trying to get him back to where he’s comfortable throwing off the mound,” Bochy said. “He’s not quite there yet.”
Dickerson still down: Alex Dickerson, who returned from Los Angeles early to get a cortison shot in his right oblique, is swinging off a tee, but still not ready to return. The Giants are hoping he’ll be back by the weekend.
“That’s the goal,” Bochy said, “to get him out on the field doing some things, taking some swings, get him to the point where he can pinch-hit, take a look at that, and get him to swing without making a grimace, and I’ll put him in there.”