Johnny Cueto dazzles in Giants return

Right-hander dances back from Tommy John surgery to throw five shutout innings

ORACLE PARK — As Johnny Cueto walked back to the San Francisco Giants dugout, he actively — and, ultimately, unsuccessfully — tried to suppress a smile.

After his first big league inning in 13 months, he skipped over the third base line, doffed his cap, bounced his fist on his right leg, looked up into the stands at a standing ovation and gave a small thumbs-up.

In his first start back from Tommy John surgery, the ebullient Cueto entertained a sparse yet appreciative crowd, going on to pitch five shutout innings and allowing just two baserunners in a 5-4 Giants win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cueto’s first victory since April 28, 2018.

“It was Johnny like we know,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “To do that his first outing, that was pretty impressive … It really couldn’t have gone better.”

The only blemish on the evening came after Cueto exited — a two-out, four-run rally in the eighth, which was snuffed out by former Florida closer Shaun Anderson, who earned his first big league save. Catcher Stephen Vogt had already given San Francisco plenty of cushion.

Vogt drove home two runs on a two-strike single as part of a three-run first, then added another two on a 1-2 homer to right with two outs in the fifth — both against hard-throwing Mitch Keller. That proved enough for Cueto to record his ninth win in nine decisions against the Pirates, dating back to 2012.

Cueto said on Saturday in Los Angeles that he felt like he was 19 again, and on Tuesday, he played like it.

“To me, it was like I was pitching Opening Day,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros.

Cueto allowed just one hit and one walk and striking out four, showing himself to be every bit the artist that manager Bruce Bochy called him before first pitch by throwing at least 12 of each of four different pitches.

“You see the joy he’s out there with, the one thing that really blows my mind is, whatever you call, he’s going to execute,” Vogt said. “It sounds funny, but he pitches. He hits his spots. He is, he’s an artist. He really is. And it was really, really fun.”

Cueto averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball (the same as 2017, his last healthy season) and used every deceptive trick he’s known for, from the quick pitch to the hip shimmy to the foot flip and the slide step.

“The ability to change up his wind up and do the different shimmies and what-have-you and still execute the pitch, no matter what pitch you call, that’s definitely special,” Vogt said. “… I don’t think that gets talked about enough, how much that disrupts us as hitters when pitchers can vary their their rhythms and timing like that. It’s really impressive what he does.”

Cueto fanned rookie star Bryan Reynolds on a tight slider in the first, buzzed a strike-three fastball by Jose Osuna and only gave up a flare from Kevin Kramer that just got by the shifted Muricio Dubon in the third. He retired the final seven men he faced.

“He was just so happy today,” Vogt said. “Before the game during the game after the game, you could just tell he was having fun.”

This was the All-Star Cueto, the first-month-of-2018 Cueto, the Cueto the Giants signed for six years and $130 million in 2016, the Cueto who turns baseball into a merengue.

“That’s my game,” Cueto said. “Every time I pitch I just want to have fun.”

With two outs in the fifth and Cueto’s pitch count climbing, Kramer worked the count full, before Cueto’s darting, 81-mph changeup caught him for strike three. Slated to go 70 pitches, it was Cueto’s 69th, and his 43rd strike.

“It’s actually a really hard game to call, because literally, he can throw any pitch in any count anywhere you want,” Vogt said. “And they all work in every situation. So, it’s actually kind of difficult to put your finger — pardon the pun — but put your finger on the right one, but that changeup is special.”

Drenched in sweat, Cueto punched the air and looked to the sky. His son, Joande, had made an orange sign with black and white lettering that said “Dia de Cueto …Vamos con Dios.” Johnny had not seen him preparing it throughout the day. As he walked off the field, he looked up at it, pounded his right leg with his right fist, took off his cap and exited to another roaring ovation. He didn’t fight the smile.

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