AT&T PARK — After his start in the preseason Bay Bridge Series, Johnny Cueto walked around the San Francisco Giants clubhouse with his middle finger in a small cup of water.
He complained of either “hot spots” or “blisters” — depending on the translation — but insisted it wouldn’t be a long-term problem.
Fast-forward to Wednesday: His team is in last place, and Cueto is on track to throw the fewest innings in his major-league career since 2013, the only other season the usually healthy starter suffered several health setbacks.
This year, it’s been one big problem that compounded and created another: While working around the blisters, he strained the flexor in his forearm. On July 15, with the Giants well out of playoff contention, the team placed the starter on the disabled list.
Cueto is working his way back into the Giants rotation. He made a rehab start for Triple-A Sacramento on Tuesday night, when he threw 47 pitches across three scoreless innings. He reported throwing everything in his arsenal and expects to be activated after one more minor-league outing.
His return would be a welcome sight for manager Bruce Bochy and the Giants — albeit meaningless with the team 25 games under .500 after beating the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-2, on Wednesday.
But what caused the blisters in the first place?
Cueto thinks the balls the MLB is using this season are to blame. He isn’t the only one. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy and Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander have accused the league of juicing the ball by raising the seams. As recently as Tuesday, Commissioner Rob Manfred denied that’s the case, but home runs are up — as well as blister issues for pitchers.
“All I can say is that I didn’t have any blisters before 2016,” former Oakland Athletics and current Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill said in an LA Times story.
The issue has had a steep cost for the Giants. Not only have they had their second-best pitcher limited or out, rendering themselves unable to deal Cueto and his uncertain contract at the trade deadline, but they also haven’t cashed in on the power surge on the offensive end. While the MLB as a whole is on pace for a record-number of homers, San Francisco has the fewest by no small margin at 23 fewer than the 29th-ranked Pittsburgh Pirates.
Despite being signed under a deal that gives him all the deciding power — Cueto has four years of player options, each for $21 million — Bochy and General Manager Bobby Evans expect the righty back next season.
“I stay on the positive side,” Bochy said.
With all that’s happened this season, that’s an impressive statement.