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Thursday, October 28, 2010
Cain calm in face of big moment

By Amy K. Nelson
ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Shortly before 5 p.m. Pacific Time on Thursday, Texas Rangers third-base coach Dave Anderson will run to his position in front of the San Francisco Giants' dugout. Facing him about 75 feet away will be the pitcher Anderson once signed and recruited in high school.

"It's pretty cool," Matt Cain said on the eve of his first World Series start about facing the former University of Memphis coach who once hoped to have Cain pitch for him in college.

Matt Cain
Matt Cain hasn't given up an earned run in two playoff starts.

Cool, indeed. With San Francisco already up 1-0 in the series, Cain, 26, will take the mound against the Rangers in Game 2 as the longest-tenured Giant. He will approach it with a 0.00 postseason ERA, having given up just nine hits to the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies in his first playoffs, the byproduct of his even temperament and his arsenal of weapons.

"He has evolved to a complete pitcher from what he was at a younger age, when he was pretty much a power guy," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's got a good slider, curveball and changeup. He has good command of them, and when he does, that's when he pitches well."

In 2001 when Cain was a junior at Houston High School in Germantown, Tenn., a Memphis suburb, Anderson saw a raw arm, the late life on his fastball and a solid frame -- while knowing Cain was a year younger than his grade -- and projected him as a high-ceiling pitcher.

"We saw the body and we said, 'This guy doesn't even have any facial hair,'" Anderson said. "He's not even close to being mature. This guy is going to be a force when he gets some maturity on him."

Anderson projected well. Cain had transitioned from a middle infielder to the mound when he was a sophomore, with a fastball clocked in the upper 80s. By his senior year, his curveball was so good that he would throw it in 2-0 counts. And by then his heater was up in the mid-90s.

When the team's ace, Conor Lalor, was lost to injury, Cain became the No. 1, and with each start the number of scouts increased. Soon, Houston High Mustangs coach Lane McCarter changed his voice mail to say:

Hi, this is Lane. I'm out of the office right now. Leave a number and I'll call you back. And … Matt Cain will pitch on Thursday.

McCarter, who nicknamed him "Big Daddy Cain" after the legendary '80s rapper, still coaches Houston High. On Thursday night he'll join about 40 other people at another coach's house, and they'll watch Game 2 of the World Series. They've rented two big projectors, and the local newspaper will cover the event. McCarter said Memphis people are slowly starting to take notice.

"He hasn't become a household name yet," McCarter said.

That's not the case in San Francisco. It's hard to believe that at 26, Cain has been around this team the longest. After being drafted 25th overall by the Giants in 2002, when he was only 17, he needed just three years to reach the majors. On Sept. 9, 2005, Cain became the youngest Giant to throw a complete game (a two-hitter against the Chicago Cubs) at 20 years and 343 days old. It was just his third major league start.

Since then, Cain has quietly become the team's workhorse, amassing four consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings and five straight of 30-plus starts. He went 13-11 with a 3.14 ERA, 177 strikeouts and .646 OPS against over 223 innings in 33 starts this season.

Yet, not many people know much about him.

"He keeps it so low-key, and he's so professional," Giants infielder Manny Burriss said. "He's been groomed to be that professional. It's crazy, he's like a veteran, but we're the same age."

When he was 4 years old, Cain's parents felt he was mature enough, so they enrolled him in kindergarten even though he missed the cutoff date because of his Oct. 1 birthday.

"My mom was a teacher, so I think she said, 'Let's just go ahead and start him at 4, and if he's not ready, we'll hold him back,'" Cain said.

That never happened, and by age 17 the Giants were offering him a $1.375 million signing bonus. Anderson knew that once all the scouts started flocking, he'd have no chance at the right-hander.

"I told him and his parents, 'If you get drafted high, I'll give you the pen,'" Anderson said. "'I'll help you sign.'"

Cain did sign, and the unassuming pitcher is now faced with the task of trying to give his team a solid grip on this series. The team that wins Game 1 goes on to win it all 61 percent of the time. Six of the past seven teams have done exactly that.

When Cain takes the mound against the Rangers on Thursday, Anderson won't be the only one watching with local ties. So will his high school pitching coach, Collins Day. He and Cain have remained close, often swapping multiple text messages a day. Before he got married last year, Cain used to live across the street from Houston High and worked out with the coaches and players every day in the offseason. Day said Cain educated him about pitching.

"He taught me a lot about mechanics," Day said.

McCarter said that Cain outworks the high school kids, going station-to-station on every conditioning drill.

"Matt outworked them," McCarter said. "College kids would come back here, and they'd be in the bathroom puking. It was great."

Cain also became a mentor and part-time coach. He'd throw in the bullpen, then watch other kids throw and often give them tips, especially about the changeup, one of his best pitches.

"It was obviously great for me, because I was able to have those guys push me on my running and conditioning, and they put me on a schedule," Cain said. "It was also great to chat with those guys that are still in high school and maybe teach them and just help out. It's fun being around those guys. They push me more than I push them, I bet."

Day added that Cain was raised by good, measured people -- the son of Tom, a custom woodworker, and Dolores, a former teacher who now runs the family's tuxedo shop -- and his thoughtfulness makes an impact. Day said he knew during this postseason that Cain was trying to let him feel he has a small part in the experience when they'd text each other, Day sometimes giving Cain small bits of advice. It rubs off on his teammates.

"He's one of those guys I watch every move he makes both on the field and off the field," said Giants rookie pitcher Madison Bumgarner, 21. "He's a good role model."

One thing Day will watch closely Thursday is Cain's body language on the mound. When he's on, Cain is almost always "stone-faced," Day said, and he'll know right away whether Cain will be on point. How will Day be able to tell?

"He'll have no emotion on his face," Day said. "He won't be excited, he won't be mad, he won't be intense. It'll look like he's watching TV home alone at his house. Stone-faced. You can see that he's mentally intense, but physically he's relaxed."

Cain said he doesn't know why he's always been so laid-back. Both he and his former coaches think it's a big reason for his success.

"When you're getting ready [in the outfield] you stand out there, soak it all in," Cain said when asked how he'll approach his first World Series start. "Look at all the people in the crowd. Look at the stands, enjoy it. Take it all in. I think that right there, for me, helps to settle the nerves.

"Notice everything. You're having fun with it."

There'll be no fearing the big moment for Big Daddy Cain.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.