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Monday, April 1, 2013
Kershaw steals show, but Cain a legit ace

By David Schoenfield

It's not an easy way to begin defense of your World Series title, facing the best pitcher in the National League and having to beat the Dodgers on a day Sandy Koufax threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Clayton Kershaw dominated the Giants with a shutout and the go-ahead home run in the eighth inning and the talk will quickly turn to the Dodgers' negotiations with their star left-hander about a long-term deal.

But in the background, as quiet as ever, just out of the spotlight, there was Matt Cain, throwing six shutout innings with eight strikeouts, one walk and four hits allowed. In some ways, it was Cain's first official game as the designated Giants ace, the description usually given to a team's Game 1 starter. It was his first Opening Day start -- he'd started the Giants' third game each of the past four seasons -- and he pitched like an ace should pitch to kick off a season.

Of course, it's not like Cain hasn't pitched in big games before. He was masterful in the 2010 title run for the Giants, allowing just one unearned run in his three playoff starts, including 7.2 scoreless innings in Game 2 of the World Series. By last year's playoffs, he had become the Giants' No. 1 starter after Tim Lincecum struggled in the regular season. But even Lincecum's rough season meant the national attention was focused more on him than Cain and the other Giants starters. Cain wasn't as sharp in the postseason as in 2010, but he was the winning pitcher in the do-or-die Game 5 of the division series against the Reds (three runs in 5.2 innings) and Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals (5.2 scoreless innings), which was enough to cement his growing reputation as a big-game pitcher.

Despite a 2.10 career postseason ERA, three All-Star appearances, a perfect game, six straight 200-inning seasons and a career 3.27 ERA, Cain still seems to fight for respect, however. When fans and writers listed their preseason Cy Young candidates, Cain was rarely mentioned alongside the likes of Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Cole Hamels. When I polled the SweetSpot blog network, only one of the 47 voters put Cain No. 1 on their ballot. He did fare better in the ESPN predictions ballot, perhaps a sign that he is starting to win over those who appreciate his durability and consistency.

For years, statheads argued that Cain's peripheral stats haven't matched his ERAs -- his career ERA is nearly a run lower than his 4.19 FIP (fielding independent pitching). But even those analysts are starting to come around on Cain, believing he's that rare pitcher who can deliver a low batting average on balls in play year after year (in part because of his unique ability to generate a lot of infield popups). And, yes, Cain is a fly ball pitcher who has learned to take advantage of the big dimensions at AT&T Park in San Francisco -- he has a career 2.98 ERA at home, 3.61 on the road.

But Cain did take a small leap forward last year, with the best strikeout/walk ratio of his career, and if his Opening Day start is any indication, he's primed for another big year. Which means that maybe this is the year that Cain won't have to wait until October to get the accolades he deserves.