The San Francisco Giants needed this one. Matt Cain certainly needed it. The Giants, mired in a bad stretch that had seen them go 7-20 since June 9 and slide from a 9.5-game lead in the NL West to a one-game deficit, had already lost the first two games of a three-game series to Bay Area rival Oakland. Cain entered with a 1-7 record and 4.27 ERA in 14 starts.
The Giants were floundering. Cain is being paid $20 million to do a whole lot better than 1-7.
Even if we all know pitcher wins don't always tell the whole story, that isn't supposed to be the record of a $20 million pitcher. So it was a big game, at least as big as a game in early July can be considered.
Cain -- who knows a thing or two about big-game performances -- was solid, certainly not spectacular. He worked through 105 pitches in six innings, gave up five hits and two runs, including a long home run to Stephen Vogt in the fourth inning. His biggest pitch was probably his final one. Leading 3-2, having just given up an RBI single, he faced All-Star catcher Derek Norris with two runners on. He got ahead with a curveball and threw the signature Matt Cain: A 92 mph two-seamer with late action. Norris grounded out to shortstop.
The Giants went on to win 5-2, moved back into a first-place tie with the Dodgers and Cain got the W, his first since May 15. After the game, Hunter Pence admitted it was "a pretty intense series."
OK. Let's dig into some big-picture questions for the Giants.
1. How good are the Giants? Not as good as their 42-21 start and not as bad as they've been the past month. They're probably about where they should be, on pace for 89 wins. That's about where most people had them projected before the season.
2. Sure, but they lost Angel Pagan on June 15. Right about when the slide started. No coincidence, right? His injury has hurt but one guy doesn't make a lineup. Pagan was having a nice season -- .307/.356/.411 -- but that's not exactly Willie Mays. It is true, however, that Giants center fielders have been a disaster since Pagan went down, hitting .145/.193/.205 since June 15 entering Wednesday's game.
A bigger factor for the offense has been the decline in home runs. Through June 8, they were second in the National League and fourth in the majors with 69 home runs, a great pace for a team that was next-to-last in home runs in the NL in 2013 and last in 2012.
Since June 9, however, the Giants have hit 14 home runs -- the lowest total in the majors. Pence homered on Wednesday. They need more of that.
3. OK, what's been wrong with Cain? I'm not sure anything is wrong. I've been going through his numbers, slicing and dicing and digging deep and there's nothing obvious that explains why he had a 2.93 ERA from 2009 through 2012 and 4.06 the past two seasons. His fastball velocity is the same. Things like swing-and-miss rate and strike percentage and batting average on balls in play are all stable.
But his walk rate is up slightly, especially this year, and he's given up a few more home runs (his home run per fly ball rate is up, although his actual rate of fly balls has been lower the past two seasons than before). That's enough to raise that ERA just a bit.
Why that's happening, I'm not sure. Maybe he's falling behind a little more often. Early last season, he was certainly grooving a few many pitches. This year, he has missed a few starts and twice landed on the disabled list -- first, with a cut on his right index finger suffered while cutting a sandwich and then a hamstring pull. So that could have had an effect. Overall, however, I see no reason why Cain can't be better the rest of the season.
4. What about the rest of the rotation? That's why Cain really needs to step it up. The rotation was bad last year and even this year it's not as good as its reputation. Look, Madison Bumgarner is a terrific pitcher, but he's not Clayton Kershaw and I'd be hard-pressed to say he's better than Zack Greinke. Tim Lincecum is pretty good against the Padres and pretty good at home, but has a 5.82 ERA on the road. Tim Hudson was the savior the first two months and Ryan Vogelsong has been much better than last season. Entering Wednesday, the Giants ranked 21st in starters' WAR via FanGraphs.
5. Didn't you say Brandon Belt could contend for the batting title? Next question.
6. What do they need to do to stay with the Dodgers? Well, if Pagan's back issue is a long-term problem, they'll need to address center field. Without Marco Scutaro, second base has been a problem, with rookie Joe Panik currently being given the opportunity. You know Brian Sabean will make a move; he always does, one of the few GMs that is always willing to trade his prospects for that veteran spare part. Second base is one position that will potentially be easiest to fill -- guys like Aaron Hill, Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and Gordon Beckham could be available.
7. The bullpen ... Yes, they're fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA overall... but they're 28th since June 9. Their true value is probably somewhere between those two rankings. Obviously, Sergio Romo's gopherball issues have been a big problem, leading to his demotion from closer and I'd worry about the ages here -- their top six relievers are all older than 30 -- but the pen should OK moving forward.
8. Last one. What's the best news with the Giants? They play in the NL West.