SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants couldn’t have asked for much more from Johnny Cueto in his return from Tommy John surgery.
Cueto worked five scoreless innings in his second start of the season, helping the Giants secure a series victory with a 2-1 win over the Marlins on Sunday afternoon at Oracle Park. After completing a 13-month rehab, Cueto has allowed only four singles over 10 shutout frames in his first two outings for San Francisco.
“I don’t know if anybody expected him to get off to a start like this,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “But you look at how he’s throwing the ball, it’s Johnny before the surgery.”
Cueto departed with a one-run lead behind Mauricio Dubon’s third home run of the season for the Giants, but he came away with a no-decision after the Marlins tied the game in the seventh on a bunt single by Magneuris Sierra, a throwing error by Evan Longoria and an RBI single by Jon Berti.
Still, the Giants rallied the following inning after Mike Yastrzemski and Brandon Belt singled and Longoria walked to load the bases. Marlins reliever Ryne Stanek then uncorked a wild pitch during an at-bat against Brandon Crawford, allowing Yastrzemski to score the go-ahead run from third.
After missing eight games with back stiffness, closer Will Smith returned to the mound for the first time since Sept. 6 and worked a scoreless ninth to convert his 33rd save of the season. With 1,998 career victories, Bochy is only two away from becoming the 11th big league manager to reach 2,000.
Cueto fired five shutout innings against the Pirates in his 2019 debut last week and was originally penciled in to pitch on Tuesday in Boston, giving him six days of rest in between starts. But Cueto recovered so well from his first start that the Giants decided to keep him on a normal schedule and start him at home against the Marlins.
The 33-year-old veteran faced more traffic on the basepaths on Sunday, with the Marlins putting the leadoff man on board in each of his first four innings, but he managed to neutralize the jams and avoid damage.
Miguel Rojas led off the game with a single, stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch, but Cueto induced a popout from Neil Walker to leave him stranded. The Marlins posed their biggest threat in the fourth after Starlin Castro singled and Walker drew a walk to put runners on first and second with no outs, but Cueto coaxed a flyout from Jorge Alfaro and struck out Lewis Brinson and Sierra on changeups to end the inning.
“He got in a jam there, but he made the pitches when he had to and that’s what he’s so good at,” Bochy said. “Good pitchers, that’s what makes them great, so he’s got that quality. He just commands the ball, cuts it, mixes up his delivery and that works. His arm strength, I think, is even a little bit better than where it was before he had the surgery.”
Before the fifth inning, pitching coach Curt Young informed Cueto that he was about 10 pitches away from hitting his limit for the day. The Giants had two pitchers warming in the bullpen in case Cueto couldn’t finish the inning, but he breezed through the fifth, needing only six pitches to retire Berti, Elieser Hernandez and Rojas in order and cap his 71-pitch outing.
Cueto tried to convince Bochy to let him go back out for the sixth, but he was unsuccessful, as the Giants are being mindful of his workload as he eases his way back from the extended layoff.
“I’m thankful that my arm feels good,” Cueto said. “I have confidence in all of my pitches.”
Cueto’s results so far have stoked optimism that he’ll be able to carry this form over into 2020 and continue to be productive over the final two seasons of the six-year, $130 million contract he signed in December 2015. A healthy and effective Cueto would help ease some of the uncertainties the Giants will face concerning their rotation, which could lose left-hander Madison Bumgarner to free agency this offseason.
Cueto is lined up to make two more starts for the Giants this season, and he is expected to throw approximately 85 pitches in his next outing. He hopes to reach 100 pitches before the end of the year and continue to use this month as a stepping-stone to next season.
“It’s pretty fun to watch this man work,” Bochy said. “He’s an artist out there. Great stuff, great mind and unbelievable command.”