I’m worried about Matt Cain. Because it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
I was in the stands at AT&T Park on Sept. 9, 2005, when Cain gave Giants fans goose bumps, pitching a two-hitter against the Chicago Cubs. He was 20 years old. It was his third major-league start and everybody left the ballpark dreaming big things.
What I remember most about that Friday night was Cain striking out Derrek Lee to end the sixth. Two innings earlier, Lee had homered to left field, and in their next confrontation, Cain simply overpowered the slugger. Mano a mano. The kid never blinked. The place went crazy.
In fact, after giving up Lee’s fourth-inning homer, Cain retired 15 batters in a row and wound up beating the Cubs 2-1. After the game, while an energized crowd spilled out into Willie Mays Plaza, Felipe Alou compared Cain to a young Tom Seaver.
And the former Giants skipper was right, but not like he expected. During Seaver’s first two full seasons with the New York Mets — 1967 and ’68 — the Mets went 61-101 and 73-89. In Cain’s first two full seasons with the Giants, the Giants went 76-85 and 71-91. That’s right, the Giants have been amazin’at being bad.
Here’s where the road splits, however, because the Mets won the World Series in Seaver’s third season. The Giants aren’t going to win the World Series. In fact, they’ll probably be worse than last year, leaving Cain pitching at the bottom of the standings for another year.
That’s all he’s known to this point. The Giants were 15 games under .500 when Cain made his major-league debut. The team finished nine games under .500 in 2006 and 20 games under .500 last year.
And now he’s got to be going into this season wondering if he’ll get any help — again. After a season in which he endured his team scoring two runs or less in 20 of his 30 starts, Cain finds himself surrounded by 24 teammates even more challenged to score runs — good guys, just not great hitters.
Last season, Cain ranked 10th among National League starters in ERA, but was the only pitcher of those 10 to post a sub-.500 record, and he was a miserable 6-17. Even Ian Snell of the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a 3.76 ERA, managed to go 9-12.
So what does Cain have to look forward to this season? Pitching a shutout every fifth day? If he can just keep his ERA below 1.00, he’ll have a chance? Exactly when will he pitch in an important game? 2010?
Cain is as good a young pitcher as there is in baseball and the prospect of getting nothing for all that talent for another entire season is going to be very, very tough to get through.
And that’s got me worried.
Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner.