SAN FRANCISCO–Johnny Cueto wanted to enjoy the moment.
For a 10th year veteran who recently spent six weeks on the disabled list amidst the toughest season of his professional career, who could blame him?
A pitcher known for his swagger, sense of humor and ability to control the pace of play, Cueto hasn’t had much to smile about this season. So when Cueto singled in the bottom half of the fifth inning, and right fielder Hunter Pence launched a two-run moonshot to center field, Cueto stopped to savor his time rounding the bases.
In the midst of the Giants’ 4-3 walkoff win over the Colorado Rockies, Cueto did his best impression of a horse-drawn carriage, trotting around the base paths at a leisurely pace you’d be accustomed to seeing on the paths of Central Park rather than a Major League baseball diamond.
The Giants gave Cueto plenty of reason to enjoy the night too, as Pence hit a walkoff sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth inning to propel San Francisco to its second straight win. After Pablo Sandoval led off the bottom of the ninth with an infield single, Ryder Jones bunted a ball past Nolan Arenado to put runners on first and second with no one out. Then, a Kelby Tomlinson single loaded the bases and it was time for Pence to strike again. He did, and this time, Cueto wasn’t there to slow him down.
As for the Giants’ starting pitcher, he doesn’t reach base often, and apparently when he does, Cueto doesn’t have much interest in racing around the base paths. Instead, he took in the roar of the crowd before acting as an overzealous school crossing guard, offering Pence a stern warning to slow down or risk impending danger.
The ovation Pence received following his 444-foot home run to center field was hardly different from the one Cueto received after he exited following 6.2 innings of work against a Rockies’ team jockeying for positioning in the National League Wild Card race. Cueto loves the big moment and pitching on a grand stage, and though the Giants were never competitive in the standings this year, perhaps the opportunity to spoil a division foe’s playoff hopes provided the right-hander with enough of a backdrop to amp himself up.
It’s entirely possible, though rather improbable, that Cueto also psyched himself up for Tuesday’s outing because it could be his last as a member of the Giants at AT&T Park. While the overwhelming train of thought is that the Dominican Republic native will opt in for the remaining four years left on his six-year deal this offseason, Cueto has the freedom to opt out and hit free agency should he choose to take his talents elsewhere. And because the Giants have talked about giving veteran Matt Cain a start against the Padres during the season’s final weekend, Cueto’s last start of the year might be skipped. Nevertheless, prior to Tuesday’s game, Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy reiterated his belief that Cueto will return to play out the rest of his contract, and when Bochy pulled Cueto from the game in the top of the seventh, San Francisco’s fan base gave its starter a standing ovation that suggested it would love for Cueto to remain in the Giants’ rotation for years to come.
Cueto’s road to a standing ovation didn’t start on the straight and narrow on Tuesday. In fact, his path was a rather crooked one that involved a high-pressure 24-pitch first inning followed by a top of the second in which he allowed a pair of runs. Though Cueto’s pitch count skyrocketed toward 80 in the fifth inning, double play balls in the fifth, sixth and seventh as well as a pickoff in the fourth helped him negate a slew of base runners and helped him work into the seventh.
After throwing 5.1 innings or fewer in his first three starts following his disabled list stint, Cueto lasted long enough on Tuesday to put himself in position to pick up his eighth win of the season. While a Gerardo Parra RBI double off Hunter Strickland in the eighth inning spoiled Cueto’s chances of recording that victory, he did make a statement with his ability to pitch out of trouble.
Pence’s home run pushed the Giants in front of the Rockies after first baseman Pablo Sandoval laced his second hit of the night past third baseman Nolan Arenado in the fourth inning to plate Buster Posey for San Francisco’s first run of the night. Aside from another strong outing from a Giants’ starter, the recent emergence of Sandoval –who now has five hits in his last two games– is another positive sign for a Giants’ team grasping at any silver linings it can find during the season’s final month.