Dickey: Cain learns from hard-luck 2007

Sometimes, the worst way to judge a pitcher is by his won-loss record. Matt Cain had a 3.65 ERA last season and gave up just 173 hits in 200 innings, yet he was only 7-16 because of a lack of run support and shoddy work by relievers who followed him.

“It was pretty hard to stay positive,” he admitted when we talked at the Giants’ luncheon kicking off their 50th anniversary campaign. “My teammates picked me up, [they were] encouraging me.”

And to his credit, Cain never complained about his fate.

Since the Giants were celebrating their early years in San Francisco, I mentioned to Cain that I had seen some duels between Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale when you knew runs would be in short supply.

“That happened to me, too,” he said. “I was pitching against guys like Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine, John Smoltz. I knew my guys would have a hard time scoring much off them.”

Smoltz is a power pitcher like Cain, but Maddux and Glavine are much different pitchers, moving the ball around, hitting spots. So, I asked Cain if he could learn anything from them.

“All of them, even Smoltz, make a point of staying ahead in the count, so they’re always in control of the game,” he said. “That’s something I’m really trying to work on. If I can keep my pitch count down, I can stay in the game longer.”

In this era, starting pitchers seldom pitch complete games, which was the norm when the Giants came to San Francisco (Marichal once had 30 complete games in a season) but the minimum requirement for a good starting pitcher is to get into the seventh inning. Cain barely accomplished that last season, averaging about 6¹/³ innings per start. If he could pitch into the eighth inning this year, he’d need less help from the bullpen. Considering the still-iffy state of the Giants’ ’pen, that would be a very good thing.

Cain is part of a Giants rotation that is the strongest part of the team, with fellow wunderkinds Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, Noah Lowry and Kevin Correia.

“You have to start with pitching,” noted Giants owner and managing partner Peter Magowan. “I think we have two of the best young pitchers in the game, and I think Zito will have a much better year, with the pressure off him.”

The Giants have changed their mantra from power to pitching and defense. Their one big free-agent acquisition was Aaron Rowand, who is an excellent defensive center fielder.

But the offense looks weaker than at any time since Magowan’s group purchased the Giants before the ’93 season. The two biggest power threats, Barry Bonds and Pedro Feliz, are gone. Rowand hit 27 home runs in his career year offensively in 2007, but that was playing half his games in Philly’s bandbox and in a powerful lineup featuring Ryan Howard, who is almost as much of an offensive monster as Bonds was in his prime.

He’ll get no support from the rest of the lineup — Bengie Molina as the cleanup hitter? — and he’ll be playing home games in a pitcher’s park. He’ll be lucky to hit 20 as a Giant.

So, it may be still another year when Cain has to stay positive as a top starting effort is wasted.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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