Two playoff starts, two mediocre performances.
That’s been the story thus far for the Giants’ Matt Cain, who draws the tough assignment today of trying to shut down the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series in front of their rabid fan base.
After a dazzling effort in 2010 in which he didn’t allow a single earned run in 21¹?³ postseason innings — shutting down one potent lineup after another — much was expected of Cain when the calender turned to October.
But expectations and reality haven’t collided thus far. And it’s a bit perplexing.
With Tim Lincecum mired in a nearly seasonlong slump this year, Cain adopted the role of the Giants’ ace during the regular season. And he ran with it.
The big, country-strong right-hander produced his best season in the big leagues with a 16-5 record and 2.79 ERA, earned a start in the All-Star Game and was one of the more consistent starters in baseball.
Granted, Cain, who signed a five-year, $112.5 extension in the offseason, hasn’t been awful in the postseason. He’s kept the Giants in both games, allowing three runs each start.
But he hasn’t shown signs of being able to take over a game like he did in 2010 or like fellow starter Ryan Vogelsong did on Monday in Game 2 of the NLCS, the first time a Giants starter has done so this postseason.
For Cain, that has to end today. The Giants can’t afford to have another so-so showing.
While Giants manager Bruce Bochy hasn’t officially named Game 4 or Game 5 starters yet, it appears Lincecum will get the nod in Game 4 after bailing the Giants out several times with stellar bullpen outings. Either Barry Zito or Madison Bumgarner would then start Game 5.
Lincecum has been lights-out coming out of the ’pen, but there still has to be some trepidation about him starting on the road in the playoffs after a season in which he compiled a 6.43 ERA away from AT&T Park. And the prospect of Zito or Bumgarner, who has been a shell of himself for nearly two months now, starting a game leaves you queasy.
The momentum the Giants gained by winning Game 2 thanks to the gritty game produced by Marco Scutaro after he was ambushed by Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday on a double-play attempt will be nullified by the home-crowd euphoria in St. Louis. This one will be played on even footing.
If Cain, who was 1-1 with a 6.94 ERA in two starts against St. Louis in the regular season, deals and is simply outdueled by the Cardinals’ Kyle Lohse, you can live with that. A 2-1 deficit is far from insurmountable, particularly given what the Giants did to the Cincinnati Reds in the division series.
But if the Cardinals rough up Cain, it would lead to more doubts, more uncertainty and more questions. Is there anyone beside Vogelsong who is going shine under the bright lights? Who would start Game 7?
“We haven’t been pulling our weight as a starting staff,” Cain said Tuesday.
That’s something Cain can quickly put an end to. Starting today.
Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @dkruse16.