Matt Cain has been a great pitcher for a long time. He’s been a durable and above-average pitcher since his emergence in the league seven years ago, and for the past four seasons, he’s been as good among the best pitchers in the National League.
Except for his teammate Tim Lincecum.
For the past four seasons, Cain has pitched in the shadow of the San Francisco Giants diminutive ace, both on the field and in the public eye, playing the Robin to his Batman within the Giants starting rotation.
While Lincecum was collecting Cy Young awards, Cain was busy becoming the most consistent pitcher in baseball. That consistency has served him well this season, as Lincecum fell on hard times, leaving Cain as the captain of the Giants starting rotation.
Playing second fiddle to Lincecum has enabled Cain to fly under the radar to a certain extent, but it has also kept him from having to deal with the pressure that comes with the “ace” label, as well as the pressure that comes from being the reigning Cy Young award winner.
This season, he has no such luxury.
Despite Lincecum’s exploits on the mound, it was Cain who the Giants rewarded with a massive contract extension, locking him up for the next five seasons. That, coupled with Lincecum’s struggles this season have left the pressure squarely on Cain’s shoulders to carry the Giants this post-season.
Whether or not that played a role in Cain’s performance during the NLDS is unknown, but he was just average in his Game One start, allowing a pair of home runs in five innings. His series-clinching win in Game Five wasn’t a masterpiece either, as the workhouse failed to finish the sixth inning, but he did enough to keep his team in a position to win the series.
Now facing the reigning World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, Cain will have to be better than he was last week.
There is no way to quantify the effect that having to be the ace is having on Cain’s performance, but the Giants undoubtedly need an outing from Cain that sees him go deeper into the game than he has so far in these playoffs. Cain certainly has it in him and has never shied away from the pressure surrounding him now, but there is little time for a long learning curve.
The Giants need Cain to return to the form he showed in the 2010 post-season when he threw 21 1/3 scoreless innings over the course of three playoff starts. He’s shown he has it in him to be great in the post-season, but he did it when the Giants had other great options behind him.
This year, the Giants don’t have such options. Cain is no longer a luxury. His greatness is a necessity.