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Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Updated: October 20, 10:34 AM ET
Matt Cain a secret? Not anymore

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- He'd be a great candidate for one of those "Do You Know Me?" TV spots.

"Do you know me?" Matt Cain could ask. "I pitch in one of the great rotations in baseball. I've been in the same uniform longer than any other player on my team.

"I have a better career ERA than Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia or Chris Carpenter," he'd go on. "In fact, I have the eighth-lowest career ERA of any active starting pitcher with more than 1,000 career innings.

"So how come," Cain would wonder, "nobody in three of the four time zones in America would recognize me if I sat next to them at lunch?"

And after the most top-secret ace in baseball finished asking that question, what exactly would we tell him, anyway?

That his team hadn't scored enough for him? That it would help his chances at worldwide fame if he at least had a better career winning percentage than Bruce Chen, or Ramon Ortiz, or Jeff Suppan? Or how 'bout this:

That maybe he could change all that if he went out to pitch a huge October game someday and shut down possibly the best team in baseball?

Hmmm. Excellent idea.

And so, the most top-secret ace in baseball did exactly that. For seven brilliant innings Tuesday afternoon, nobody cared anymore about Matt Cain's crummy run-support numbers, or his misleading won-loss record, or his failure to become a household name in any household that doesn't have six loaves of sourdough in the bread box.

Matt Cain
Matt Cain outdueled Cole Hamels, holding the Phillies to two singles.

All that mattered on this day were the seven dominating innings of two-hit, "nada"-run baseball that Cain unleashed on the unsuspecting back-to-back National League champs. And when he was through, the San Francisco Giants had hijacked the momentum one more time in the National League Championship Series, with a 3-0 Game 3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Giants now lead this NLCS two games to one, with the next two games in AT&T Park -- where they're 25-14 all-time against the Phillies, where they've held that vaunted Phillies lineup to a .159 batting average this year, and where the Phillies haven't won two games in a row in the same season since July 2006.

So all of a sudden, this Giants team -- an outfit that was 6½ games out of first place with only 34 games to play -- is two wins away from its fourth trip to the World Series since the franchise moved to San Francisco during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration.

And in between all the mandatory "We've got a lot of baseball still to be played"-type remarks that came out of many of their mouths Tuesday, you still got the sense they'd begun to get a big whiff of that rarefied World Series aroma.

"Every guy in baseball, at the beginning of spring training, says he wants to play on a team that wins the World Series," closer Brian Wilson said. "Well, we're in a position to do that now."

It's been well-documented, of course, that they're not exactly in that position because of their offense, which, amazingly, still hasn't scored more than four runs in any game since Sept. 25. (That was 3½ weeks ago, if you don't have a calendar handy.)

But the men who throw the baseball every day for this group are a whole 'nother story. It was the Phillies' fabled troika of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels that had the world's pulse rates spiking heading into this series. But after losses by Halladay and Hamels, it's beginning to look as though America's hearts were fluttering over the wrong rotation.

"It's always like that," the Giants' Mark DeRosa said. "Growing up on the East Coast, I know. Nobody in the East even knows who pitches on the West Coast."

But if those Easterners didn't know what the Phillies' vaunted bats were getting themselves into before, well, "they're finding out," DeRosa said.

And of all the state pitching secrets in the Pacific time zone, maybe none has stayed off more radar screens than Cain.

How talented is this guy? The only active starters with 1,000 career innings and a lower ERA than him are Halladay, Oswalt, Johan Santana, Felix Hernandez, Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy and the oft-injured Brandon Webb.

But how unlucky is this guy? Those seven pitchers ahead of him on that ERA list are a combined 355 games over .500. And Cain, somehow, is 57-62.

That has everything to do with the fact that Cain has turned into the poster boy for a criminal lack of run support. But as his teammate Aaron Rowand observed so eloquently Tuesday: "If we end up winning a championship and he gets a ring, I don't think he'll care about how many tough-luck losses he had."

If the Giants do end up winning a championship, we predict they'll be looking back at this gem in their rearview mirror for, oh, just about the rest of their lives. Here would be a few reasons:

• No one had shut out the Phillies in a regular-season game since Aug. 30 (when Hiroki Kuroda and the Dodgers did it). That was 37 games ago.

• No one had shut out the Phillies in a postseason game since Game 5 of the 1983 World Series (when Scott McGregor and the Orioles did it). That was 49 postseason games ago.

• In the history of the Giants' franchise, San Francisco and New York editions, only two pitchers had ever pitched at least seven innings in a postseason game while giving up no runs and no more than two hits before Cain did it in this game. One of them, you might have heard, was Tim Lincecum, not even two weeks ago. But it was just him and Dave Dravecky (Game 2, 1987 NLCS) until Cain came along. So take that, Christy Mathewson.

• And in the history of the Phillies' franchise -- which, granted, had a few decades in there that weren't quite championship material -- only two other pitchers had ever gone seven or more shutout innings, and allowed two hits or fewer, against them in a postseason game. One was the Reds' Don Gullett (Game 1, 1976 NLCS), The other was the Yankees' Vic Raschi (Game 1, 1950 World Series).

So this was rare stuff, even in a postseason in which pitching masterpieces seem to come along every 20 minutes. This was the fourth game this October in which a starting pitcher has thrown at least seven scoreless innings and given up two hits, one hit or zero. And that's never happened in any postseason before.

The fact that two of those classics were authored by assorted Giants ought to tell us something. They're only the fourth staff in history to crank out two games like that in the same postseason.

If we're just stacking up one eye-popping box-score line against the other, perhaps Cain's exhibition Tuesday might not have quite the same impact on Visine sales as Lincecum's 14-strikeout stunner against Atlanta. But if we're stacking it up against the great starts in Cain's career, there is, officially, zero competition. Just ask the man who pitched this game.

"I would say this has probably got to be -- this has got to be the top one, really," he said. "To be able to pitch in the postseason is great. And to be able to go out there and throw the ball, throw the ball well and help your team win is a great feeling."

Incredibly, Cain had never beaten the Phillies in his six seasons in the big leagues. In five career starts against them, he was 0-3, with a 6.23 ERA. That was his highest ERA against any team he'd thrown more than 10 innings against.

But to watch him chew through this lineup with seven All-Stars, you never would have believed it.

"Yeah, but I wouldn't have believed he hadn't beaten the Dodgers [in his career] until this year, either," said his catcher, Buster Posey." He's got the stuff to go out and win every time. It's just a matter of, hey, baseball's a funny game."

And you sure wouldn't file the two hits Cain allowed under "laser beams." One was a lob-wedge single to center in the third inning by Carlos Ruiz. The other was an opposite-field thunker by Ryan Howard in the fourth. And that was it.

The Phillies did get five other runners on base, via three walks and two hit batters. But when they got those men on base, Cain did what he does best -- he kept them there.

The Phillies went 0-for-6 against him with men on, and 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. But that's what Cain does. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he has held opposing hitters to a .195 average with runners on base over the past two regular seasons -- the lowest average among all pitchers in the big leagues who piled up 300 opponent at-bats in those situations.

"He's kind of got the same qualities a lot of our pitchers have," Posey said. "When he gets into those situations, he's able to slow it down and bear down a little more. It's like he can hit another level, another gear."

Cain was also able to shut down two hitters who sat atop the love-to-face-Matt Cain standings -- Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Utley came in 7-for-15, with three homers, against him. Rollins was 6-for-10, with a double, three triples, a homer and a 1.600 slugging percentage. But Cain gave them zero fastballs in fastball counts and held them to a combined 0-for-6.

And it's a good thing, because Cain did all this on a day when his offense barely squeaked out three runs off the almost-as-untouchable Hamels -- two of them on RBI singles by Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez that actually hit Utley's glove or forearm. But three runs are three runs. And three are always enough for Cain.

He's now 12-0 this year when the Giants score at least three runs for him while he's in the game -- and 50-8 lifetime. So 54 of his 62 career losses have come in games in which they scored two runs or fewer. Ummm, any more questions?

After he got those three runs on this day, the only question was how long Cain would be able to stay out in the game. It was a question his manager, Bruce Bochy, even jogged to the mound to ask him personally with two on and two outs in the seventh inning. He stuck around for about six seconds, then U-turned and watched Cain get an inning-ending ground ball from Shane Victorino.

"There was no doubt I wanted to keep him out there," Bochy said later. "But you have to check on him, because he's getting up there with pitches. That's all I was doing. And he had that look."

So what, exactly, is "that look"? Cain's teammates know it well.

"He's got it all the time," Posey said. "He does. It's a confident look, and determined. You see that look on his face, and it's a good feeling to have."

But then, you're beginning to see that look on the faces of a lot of guys on this team right now, in case you hadn't noticed.

"It's the first time a lot of these guys have been in the postseason, against what I consider to be the best team in baseball," DeRosa said. "And they don't seem to be fazed at all."

Nope. He's definitely got that right. On a pivotal day in the life of the National League Championship Series, the only people who looked fazed happened to play on that team that was out there getting overmatched by the most top-secret ace in baseball.

Uh, what's his name again?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.