Matt Cain’s Perfect Night

It was a long time coming, but Matt Cain’s timing – among other things – was perfect.

The San Francisco/New York Giants franchise is 130 years old – one of the cornerstone organizations in Major League Baseball.  So, there were few “firsts” left to be forged in team history.

From the mound, no fewer than eight Hall of Famers have pitched their way into the record books while wearing a Giants uniform.  However, there was one sterling achievement that eluded them all – the perfect game.

Among the great Christy Mathewson’s 373 career wins were two no-hitters, but neither was spotless – with walks or errors as blemishes on each.

During Juan Marichal’s extraordinary 14-year run in San Francisco, he made nine All-star teams and threw a no-hit gem in 1963.  However, like Mathewson, his brilliant performance was slightly tinged by a pair of walks.

Of course, perfection is rarely part of the human condition.  And in baseball, being perfect is an especially profound accomplishment.

Consider the basic structure of the game.

Batters typically succeed less than thirty percent of the time.  Most fielders commit double-digit errors over the course of a season.  And pitchers, on average, allow better than a hit or walk per inning.

On some level, baseball players are expected to fail – in varying increments – every time they take the field.

So, when Matt Cain took the mound for the Giants on June 13 in a game against the Houston Astros, perfection was likely the last thing on his mind.  He just wanted to pitch well and help his surging ball club continue to make upward progress in the standings.  However, what he and his teammates didn’t know – what they couldn’t know – was that they were all about to play the game of their lives.

On a flawlessly placid evening in San Francisco, timing – as they say – was everything.

Cain’s control was uncanny from the start.  He threw his fastball precisely where he wanted, and his curve had the kind of crisp break that maximized its deception.  His fearsome arsenal produced so many empty swings and baffled looks that there was legitimate wonder as to whether or not the visitors would even touch the ball, let alone produce a hit.  In all, Cain struck out 14 hitters.

On the rare occasions when Houston batters eventually made solid contact, the cool night air pulled would-be extra base drives back into outfielder’s gloves and the momentum of hard hit grounders pushed them just foul.

However, one play in the seventh inning typified the serendipity of the game.

Houston’s Jordan Schafer hit the one ball that Cain left too far in the strike zone – the one small mistake that seemed likely to smash everything to pieces – and sent an ominous, soaring drive deep into the right centerfield gap.  Out of nowhere, right fielder Gregor Blanco dashed into the area and made a headlong dive, plucking the ball out of the air just before it destroyed Cain’s masterpiece.

Later, Cain expressed amazement that Blanco was even in position to make the extraordinary play in the first place.  After the game, he jokingly asked the outfielder, “What were you doing there, anyway?”

On the mound, though, Blanco’s thrilling catch provided Cain with the boost he needed to finish his perfect night.  His demeanor settled into characteristic resolve.  Cool and – under the circumstances – inexplicably calm, he dispatched the remaining Astros hitters with the quiet efficiency of a cat burglar.

The moment was finally his.

He’d spent his entire Major League life covered by someone else’s shadow.  Perhaps, it was his quiet public persona – particularly on a team filled with flamboyant personalities – or his steady but understated playing style.  But others always leapfrogged him for media attention.

However, on that night – that beautifully flawless evening – he was rightfully, finally in the spotlight.  And he will now always be able to claim his place in Giants history – a place not even the franchise’s biggest legends reside.

Yes, it was a long time coming.  But because of the class and grace of the man who finally accomplished the feat, it was worth the wait.