SAN FRANCISCO -- In many ways, Johnny Cueto was the easy choice to start the Giants’ 2021 home opener. He’s a performer on the mound and works best in front of an audience, which set the stage for a memorable Friday afternoon at Oracle Park.
The always-entertaining Cueto tossed 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball, and Brandon Crawford added a go-ahead, two-run double to carry the Giants to a 3-1 win over the Rockies in their first game in front of their fans in San Francisco since Sept. 29, 2019.
Cueto allowed only four hits, struck out seven and walked one in his longest outing since 2016, becoming the first Giants starter to pick up a winning decision this year.
“I thought it was as good an outing as I’ve seen Johnny pitch,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “Just completely in control of each situation. Perfectly synced up with [catcher] Buster [Posey]. Just an outstanding, gutsy, efficient performance.”
Cueto found himself locked in a pitcher’s duel for most of the afternoon with Rockies left-hander Austin Gomber, who stymied San Francisco for six innings before Crawford finally snapped the scoreless tie.
After mustering only one hit and two walks through the first six innings against Gomber, the Giants managed to chase the 27-year-old southpaw in the bottom of the seventh, when he issued a pair of walks to Darin Ruf and Buster Posey with one out. Rockies manager Bud Black subsequently brought in right-hander Tyler Kinley, who issued another walk to pinch-hitter Alex Dickerson to load the bases.
That brought up Crawford, who drove a 1-2 slider from Kinley into the right-center-field gap to plate two runs and give the Giants their first lead of the afternoon.
“It was definitely special,” Crawford said. “Just being out there with fans back in the crowd, being back at home and being able to get a big hit in a big situation. It was all pretty special, and it was a lot of fun.”
Cueto carried a shutout into the ninth inning, but he gave up a leadoff triple to Chris Owings, who scored on a sacrifice fly to cut the Giants’ lead to 3-1. Kapler then jogged out to the mound to check on Cueto, drawing boos from fans who were eager to see the 35-year-old veteran turn in a complete game.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been booed, I promise you that,” Kapler said, laughing. “I understand it. The fans wanted to see Johnny finish that game. I wanted to see Johnny finish that game. Everybody in the dugout wanted to see Johnny finish that game.”
Kapler had closer Jake McGee ready to go in the bullpen, but he decided to stick with Cueto and give him the opportunity to record the final two outs of the game.
“He asked me how I was feeling, and I told him I felt good,” Cueto said in Spanish. “He told me that he had his closer ready, and he talked to Posey, who said that I should take the ball and keep going. [First baseman Brandon] Belt said the same thing, so I went back on the mound.”
Cueto retired Ryan McMahon on a flyout, but he then gave up a single to Trevor Story on his 118th pitch, prompting Kapler to bring in McGee, who struck out Sam Hilliard on three pitches to end the game.
Giants starters have now tossed at least five innings and given up no more than three runs in each of the club’s first seven games, lowering the starting staff’s ERA to 2.28 on the season. Cueto’s start is particularly encouraging, as he logged a career-high 5.40 ERA in 2020, his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. He is looking to rebound as he enters the final guaranteed year of his contract with the Giants.
“This was one of my best starts as of late because last year didn’t go too well for me,” Cueto said. “I’m going to keep working like I normally do. There’s still a lot of baseball left, so I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.”
After his season debut in Seattle last week, Cueto said he was looking forward to pitching in front of fans again because he feeds off the energy from the crowd during his outings. It showed on Friday afternoon, as Cueto used his trademark shimmies -- including a triple shimmy to strike out C.J. Cron to end the seventh -- to disrupt hitters’ timing at the plate and provide quality entertainment for the fans.
“I do think there’s a little bit of an entertainer aspect to Johnny, and I think that’s a good thing, because he backs it up,” Black said. “I think he likes being out there. I think he likes the big stage. He was animated. I think the thing that is the most important thing is that he pitches and he competes. He knows what his job is, and I think it’s fine that he does it with a little bit of a flair.”