Johnny Cueto kept the Giants in the playoff race on Thursday. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Johnny Cueto kept the Giants in the playoff race on Thursday. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Complete-game Cueto returns in crucial win over Cards

AT&T PARK — Some days are better than others to show up late to work.

Thursday fell into that category for San Francisco Giants righty Johnny Cueto, who showed up to the ballpark just two hours before first pitch.

“It thought I was late,” the starter said with a laugh.

He wasn’t. Manager Bruce Bochy had canceled pregame on-field work in hopes of shaking things up for his struggling club ahead of a huge series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The decision paid off, to say the least.

Cueto was efficient, avoided costly slip-ups and let the free-swinging Cardinals get themselves out over nine masterful innings.

His complete game in the series opener marked Cueto’s fifth of the season and the first time he lasted longer than the seventh since Aug. 3.

Cueto even contributed a key sacrifice fly — plating what turned out to be the winning run — as the Giants shook off a sweep at the hands of the lowly San Diego Padres to beat the Cards, 6-2.

“That’s what good starters do, they’re good closers,” Bochy said after the game. “He really got better as he went.”

It didn’t take long for the Giants to get started offensively. After St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright retired the first two hitters he faced, Buster Posey served a single into right field and Hunter Pence smashed a hung curveball for a line-drive home run over the fence in left field, giving the Giants an early 2-0 lead.

Cueto ran into some trouble in the third and fourth innings, but he limited the damage to just two runs. Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta and Randal Grichuk all knocked around Cueto in the fourth to tie the game, 2-2.

But after Grichuk’s single, Cueto retired the next 17 straight.

“This was my game,” Cueto said through team translator Erwin Higueros. “I felt I was in sync with Buster. We were throwing the pitches where we wanted to and I just think that we have no other choice but to get better.”

Wainwright looked to be a shadow of his former dominant self. In the bottom of the fourth, Eduardo Nunez followed a Belt walk with a one-out double off of a dead-straight fastball. After intentionally walking Denard Span to get to the pitcher, Cueto delivered a sacrifice fly to plate Belt, much to the delight of the “sell-out” crowd in attendance. Angel Pagan followed with a single through the middle of the infield to give the Giants the lead again, 4-2.

Cueto then got some insurance in the bottom of the seventh, when Span delivered on a bases-loaded single to score Pence and Belt.

With one game’s worth of positive results, Bochy has no plans of shaking up what worked for his team so well in a near must win contest.

“Tomorrow, we’re not changing anything, so tomorrow it’s a 5 o’clock show up,” the skipper said.

Span plan works out

Denard Span, who has led off almost every game he’s played in this year, was dropped to the No. 8 spot in hopes of kickstarting the offense, Bochy said before the game.

The plan, like showing up late to the park, appeared to work for at least one game.

Span went 2-for-3, including a big two-run single in the bottom of the sixth.

“I know he’s a leadoff hitter and sometimes you change things to change things, just to mix it up,” Bochy said after the game. “… I know it’s been a tough go for him recently, but he handled it well, went out there and got a couple big hits. … That’s the way it’s gotta be. Sometimes you can dwell on it, and think you’re being punished a little bit, whatever. But that wasn’t the case.”

Posey’s big day

Buster Posey, who has been fighting nagging ailments and playing several days straight without a rest day, looked locked in at the plate on Thursday.

He continually took what Wainwright gave him and ended the day 4-for-5 with a double over Randal Grichuk’s head in center field. It was his second four-hit game of the season.

Eye on the standings

The Los Angeles Dodgers lost on Thursday, so the Giants lie four games back in the National League West.

The New York Mets had a day off, allowing San Francisco to take a full-game lead for the top wild-card spot. The loss drops the Cardinals a full game behind the Mets for the second spot.

Playing to win

There was a playoff vibe at AT&T Park, despite swaths of empty seats.

The players were aware of the stakes in the game between two playoff hopefuls, and Cueto said that he changed his approach.

“Every game that I will pitch from now on, I will treat it like a playoff game,” he said. “We have 16 left and that’s how I think we should play it — as a playoff game.”

Bochy, who habitually downplays the importance of any given moment, agreed with Cueto.

“I think there was added intensity with who we’re playing, both teams are fighting to get there and you could sense it a little bit,” he said.

The Giants will send Matt Moore to the mound on Friday while the Cards will tap rookie Luke Weaver for the second of the teams’ four-game set. Adam WainwrightBrandon BeltBruce Bochyeduardo nunezjacob c. palmerJohnny CuetoMLBSan Francisco GiantsSt. Louis Cardinals

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