It was all there.
There was poetry attached to each movement. A long back turn and graceful whip around. A rushed quick pitch that would catch batters by surprise.
There were times he caught the ball from Stephen Vogt and was ready to throw it right back. And there were times he circled the mound, staring at a ball he hadn’t thrown in the majors in more than 13 months, as if searching for something.
Whatever it is, Johnny Cueto found it.
In terms of the playoff picture, the game was meaningless. In terms of Bruce Bochy’s quest for 2,000 wins, it helped (up to 1,996). In terms of the Giants’ 2020 rotation and their quest to get fans back in Oracle Park seats next season, there were few games bigger this season.
Cueto was brilliant through five innings, allowing a single hit (a single) and one walk while striking out four. But the Cueto performance is more feel than numbers, more art than science, and that theater returned to San Francisco in their 5-4 victory over the Pirates on Tuesday in front of a sparse but appreciative 26,877.
He was cheered when he stepped on the field to warm up. He was cheered when he threw his first major league pitch — a 91-mph strike — since July 28, 2018. He was cheered on each of the 69 pitches by a 33-year-old who was operating on a 70-pitch target. His final one, the eighth pitch of an at-bat Kevin Kramer was grinding, was 10 mph slower than his previous, and the 81-mph changeup was good for one final swing and miss, his fourth of the game.
5 innings of shutout ball. Welcome back Johnny Cueto 👏 pic.twitter.com/3DnrLVuJrL
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 11, 2019
Even Cueto’s celebration of a job well done evoked a sense of gracefulness, a raised fist, a sudden turn toward the plate and the completed fistpump.
He didn’t allow a hit until there was one out in the third. He was around the plate all game, 43 of his pitches strikes. After that final strikeout of Kramer, he triumphantly walked off the mound to a standing ovation — albeit muted, a night after the Giants’ worst attendance in about a decade — on a night that capped so many grueling months of Tommy John rehab. He did not return with stuff that overpowered as much as stuff that frustrated and entertained. He returned with an arsenal that looked similar coming from a body that is different, noticeably slimmer.
The show was back in The Show, and he ate up every moment. His first inning was perfect, 11 pitches and just four balls, a strikeout of former Giants farmhand Bryan Reynolds and a pair of ground outs, after which he was animated, waving to a crowd that saw not just an artist at work, not just a memorable couple hours in a season to forget, but even a competent Giants offense.
It was as if Cueto & Co. were trying to erase all the bad feeling around the team after a Monday game in which the team drew 26,826; after a ninth-inning meltdown in that game that nobody saw; after an afternoon that included news Farhan Zaidi had parted ways with eight team scouts; after the Dodgers clinched the NL West earlier Tuesday night.
With the kind of spin on his pitches — a fastball that averaged 91.3 mph, an 84-mph curveball and 83.8 changeup — along with the spin he just provided the Giants’ staff, perhaps a public relations job will follow the pitching gig.
If energy can be contagious, Cueto is evidence. The Giants’ bats responded immediately, scoring three in the first inning, when five of their first six batters recorded hits, Vogt’s two-run single the biggest.
Vogt, tasked with catching a pitcher unlike most, took charge on offense, too, launching a two-run home run to right in the fifth to finish with four RBIs.
And after Kyle Barraclough wasn’t even close in a seven-pitch, two-strike, two-runners-on performance in the seventh, Andrew Suarez entered and escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam without allowing a run.
The bullpen collapsed (again) in the eighth, a pair of runs charged each to Sam Coonrod and Wandy Peralta, Josh Bell’s homer pulling the Pirates within one. But Shaun Anderson entered, and the former University of Florida closer notched his first save since he was a Gator.
It was that kind of throwback night for a team struggling through injury, struggling through ineffectiveness, struggling to finish up a season that now will feature days to look forward to.