By Ethan Kassel
Special to S.F. Examiner
ORACLE PARK — The first San Francisco Giants home game with fans in attendance in a year-and-a-half may have looked different than a typical home opener, with 7,390 fans spaced out in pods and Jon Miller leading ceremonies from the press box rather than on the field, but it felt like classic Giants baseball.
It was the sort of pitcher’s duel that fans have been treated to hundreds of times before, with Johnny Cueto finishing an out shy of a complete game and Brandon Crawford’s two-run double in the bottom of the seventh breaking a scoreless tie and proving to be the winning hit as the Giants topped the Colorado Rockies, 3-1.
Cueto, the seventh-oldest pitcher currently rostered in Major League Baseball, looked as youthful as ever as he matched zeros with Austin Gomber, striking out seven and allowing just four hits. He didn’t let a baserunner reach at all until the fifth, and after walking C.J. Cron and allowing a single to Raimel Tapia, he promptly induced a double play off the bat of third baseman Josh Fuentes, the younger cousin of ex-Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.
The 35-year-old Dominican right-hander saved most of his theatrics for the later innings, holding off on using his iconic shimmy until the third time through the order. He finally broke it out to whiff Cron to end the top of the seventh, wiggling back and forth three times before getting the strikeout.
“Us athletes, we like to perform in front of the crowd,” he said.
Cron appeared to be Cueto’s final batter of the day as Tommy La Stella came out on deck twice to pinch-hit for Cueto, but he was never called upon. Crawford’s double off Tyler Kinley allowed manager Gabe Kapler to keep Cueto in the game. Cueto rewarded his manager with a quick nine-pitch top of the eighth inning, and he got to start the ninth with a three-run lead after Crawford ended the eighth by bouncing into a double play against Rule 5 pick Jordan Sheffield.
The ninth got off to an auspicious start as pinch-hitter Chris Owings tripled off the bricks in right-center, and after a Garrett Hampson sacrifice fly finally got Colorado (3-5) on the board, it looked like Cueto’s day was done with left-hander Ryan McMahon looming and southpaw Jake McGee warming up in the bullpen. A chorus of boos greeted Kapler as he came out to seemingly take the ball from Cueto, but he ultimately reconsidered and let the hurler try to finish the game.
“It wasn’t just Johnny that was fighting for the opportunity,” Kapler said. “It was his teammates, too. He and I were in communication throughout the game. If a pitcher’s especially efficient, we’re not going to be bound by artificial things like pitch count.”
Cueto quickly got McMahon to fly out to right, but would finish a strike shy of the complete game as Trevor Story rolled a soft single into right field. That did finally force Kapler’s hand, lifting Cueto after 118 pitches to create a left-on-left matchup between McGee and Sam Hilliard. The decision paid off immediately as McGee got three straight swings and misses to finish off his third save of the year.
Though McGee was called on to get the final out, it was an all-around stellar showing by Cueto, who not only held the Rockies lineup down but fielded his position brilliantly. He was tested early when he had to field a McMahon bunt against the shift in the first, covered first base on a tricky Charlie Blackmon grounder in the second and snared a sharp Josh Fuentes liner in the third. In the eighth, he robbed his fellow countryman Raimel Tapia of a base hit, gloving a sharp comebacker.
Like the Rockies, San Francisco (4-3) was also hitless into the fifth inning, finally getting a knock against Gomber on an opposite-field single by Buster Posey. Gomber, who threw seven walks in his first outing of the year, walked four on Friday, including Darin Ruf and Posey in the seventh. He was then replaced by Kinley, who walked pinch-hitter Alex Dickerson and yielded the key double to Crawford. The Giants added another run in the eighth against East Bay native Robert Stephenson as Brandon Belt hit a bloop single, Wilmer Flores walked, Posey lined a single to left and Alex Dickerson’s two-strike blooper scored the insurance run, lengthening Cueto’s leash.
Unlike the 2020 season, in which he struggled to the tune of a 5.40 ERA in empty stadiums, Cueto was able to feed off the crowd on Friday.
“He really thrives with energy behind him,” Kapler said. “He likes to interact during the game, and he’s certainly a performer.”
Logan Webb (0-1, 5.06 ERA) will try to follow up Cueto’s performance on Saturday in the second installment of the three game series. He’ll be opposed by Rockies right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez (1-0, 5.40).