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Cueto triumphant in return from TJ surgery

@mi_guardado
September 11, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO -- Johnny Cueto knew he was likely down to his final batter. He was approaching his prescribed 70-pitch limit, spurring action in the Giants' bullpen, but he was determined to finish strong, channeling the resiliency that steered him through 13 months of grueling elbow rehab. With his 69th

SAN FRANCISCO -- Johnny Cueto knew he was likely down to his final batter. He was approaching his prescribed 70-pitch limit, spurring action in the Giants' bullpen, but he was determined to finish strong, channeling the resiliency that steered him through 13 months of grueling elbow rehab.

With his 69th pitch of the night, Cueto struck out Kevin Kramer on a signature changeup, capping his five scoreless innings and earning the win in the Giants’ 5-4 defeat of the Pirates on Tuesday at Oracle Park. Cueto celebrated his successful return from Tommy John surgery with an emphatic spin and fist pump on the mound, walking off the field with a three-run lead and a standing ovation from the crowd.

“That was Johnny like we know,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “For him to go out there and do that his first outing, that’s pretty impressive.”

Box score

In his first Major League start since July 28, 2018, Cueto allowed only one hit, walked one and struck out four. The 33-year-old veteran looked like himself from the outset, averaging 91.3 mph on his fastball while showing good movement and command of all his pitches.

“I felt normal,” Cueto said in Spanish. “Like I was pitching on Opening Day.”

Cueto benefited from early run support, as the Giants scored three runs in the first inning on RBI singles from Stephen Vogt and Brandon Crawford. Vogt later added a two-run home run off Mitch Keller in the fifth, extending San Francisco’s lead to 5-0.

The Pirates scored four runs in the eighth to pull within one, but former University of Florida closer Shaun Anderson recorded the final four outs of the game to shut the door for the Giants and pick up his first career Major League save. Bochy said he expects to give Anderson more late-inning looks this month, especially now that Will Smith is out with a nagging back injury.

The Giants had hoped Cueto would be able to rejoin the rotation this past weekend in Los Angeles after logging six rehab starts, but back stiffness temporarily stalled his return. He cleared his final hurdle Saturday after throwing a bullpen session at Dodger Stadium, setting the stage for Tuesday’s Dia de Cueto.

“It’s obviously been a long road for him to come back,” Vogt said. “He was just so happy today. Before the game, during the game, after the game. You can tell he was having fun.”

Cueto opened his 2019 debut with a 1-2-3 first inning, retiring Kevin Newman and Colin Moran on groundouts and striking out Bryan Reynolds on a sharp slider. The Pirates threatened in the third after Kramer singled and Newman walked, putting runners on first and second with two outs, but Cueto induced a groundout from Reynolds to end the inning.

“We’ve seen this guy for years, and it just speaks to the volume of his skill set,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He continued to vary things. He’s very unpredictable. He has a wealth of experience to draw from and then he’s got pitches to add and subtract. We played to his strengths at times, too, did a lot of first-pitch swinging.”

The Giants’ bullpen began to stir as Cueto neared his pitch limit with two outs in the fifth, heightening the drama of his battle with Kramer, who fouled off four pitches before finally swinging through a full-count changeup to end the inning. The final out put Cueto in line for his first win since April 28, 2018.

“If he reached base, I was going to ask Bochy to give me one more batter,” Cueto said.

Bochy would not have acquiesced, as the Giants plan to be careful with Cueto as he eases his way back after the extended layoff. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.

“I know he would have been a little frustrated there, an out away from a win, but he made a big pitch,” Bochy said. “It really couldn’t have gone better.”

Maria Guardado covers the Giants for MLB.com. She previously covered the Angels from 2017-18. Follow her on Twitter.