Cain learns perfection is a double-edged sword

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Baseball has gone almost a week now since its last no-hitter, an unusual and welcome period of offensive prosperity in the randomly dead-bat era.

Other than R.A. Dickey, whose back-to-back one-hitters make him a regular modern-day Johnny Vander Near, pitchers were fallible Monday night. Batter's boxes were safe over most of America. And yet, in case hitters conjured any ideas of sustained comfort, Matt Cain's glove company gifted him an honest-to-goodness Samurai sword in a short and sufficiently awkward mid-afternoon ceremony here.

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Matt Cain wasn't quite this sharp when he took the hill later Monday evening. (AP)

While Cain, who in his previous start threw the 22nd perfect game in league history, might have given up a baserunner or two (or, as it turned out, 11) to the Los Angeles Angels on Monday evening, you could be sure there'd be no mound-charging.

Dressed in a white T-shirt, game pants and shower shoes, Cain accepted his weapon gingerly.

As he unsheathed it, he inquired of the glove guy, "Is it very sharp?"

"I wouldn't run your finger over it," he was told.

"No," Cain said soberly, "I wouldn't do that."

Cain did, however, eye a couple overly ambitious writers during his time in San Francisco.

Earlier Monday he'd done the requisite Top Ten for David Letterman, which all things considered makes the show the most likely place to spot a major-league pitcher anymore. You know, outside a tee box.

The celebration of Cain's perfect game – he'd been brilliant over 125 pitches Wednesday against the Houston Astros – was winding down. It's true, at a time when scoreboard zeroes have become more stubborn than a doorman with a clipboard, Cain's takedown of the Astros was exceptionally surgical. And after his years spent in the shadow of Tim Lincecum's Cy Youngs, of the Brian Wilson show, of Barry Zito's travails, of Panda hats and Buster at-bats and criminal run support, nationally speaking, Cain was getting his due.

[Big League Stew: R.A. Dickey continues historic run with second straight one-hitter]

"It probably really hasn't sunk in," he said.

Unfortunately for him, Cain presented his masterstroke amid a masterstroke cluster. The ensuing conversation lauded Cain, the Koufax-ian 14 strikeouts, and the stuff that always has promised no-hitters. That, however, led to the next conversation, the one that considered the two perfect games and three no-hitters of the first 2½ months of 2012 and the 14 perfect game/no-hitters (not counting Armando Galarraga's, lost on an umpire's call) of the past 26 months (10 of which was offseason), and asked, "Wha?"

Pitchers are better or hitters are worse. More common and severe defensive alignments. Smarter pitching through analytics. Dumber hitting through rushed development. Too much velocity, not enough greenies, too many day games, not enough Winstrol, too much strike zone, not enough … greenies.

Or utter fluke.

"I have no idea," Cain said.

"It's hard to say," said Jered Weaver, who no-hit the Minnesota Twins six weeks ago.

"I don't know," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.

And around it goes.

Maybe baseball is becoming a different game, a place where pitchers stand a little too high on the mound or power arms outnumber the capable bats. In 2005, the last season that went without a no-hitter, major leaguers batted .264 and had an on-base percentage of .330. Going on half of 2012, those numbers are .253 and .319.

You wonder when a mediocre pitcher is perfect, or close to it, even for a single afternoon. You wonder when the victims are lineups that appear vulnerable on many nights. You wonder when the topic drifts steadily to steroids, or the lack of them, or whatever else is out there, on a day when one of the great pitchers of the past generation wept outside a Washington courthouse.

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Cain's eighth straight win had its share of anxious moments. (Getty Images)

Then, however, you watch one of these many games where some guy is standing out there with six outs to go, then five, then four, and begin to understand how difficult it is. You see the play Mike Baxter made behind Johan Santana, or the one Gregor Blanco made for Cain, and begin to understand just how fragile these things are. Ask David Wright. Ask Dickey. Ask Galarraga. Ask Justin Verlander about a single hanging curveball in the ninth inning of a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. We're a barehanded play, an umpire's call, a buried slider away from a much longer conversation.

Five days after perfection, Cain allowed a line-drive single three pitches into Monday night. He survived just five innings, was a pitch or two from disaster in most of them, won anyway, and probably loved his perfect game just a little more.

Asked for the one thing he carried from that, Cain said, "I think it's a sense of knowing you can do it. You're never really sure you're capable of doing it. Will it ever happen again, you don't know. But, it's a pretty cool thing to know you're capable."

[Jeff Passan: Roger Clemens can say he's innocent regardless of whether he took steroids]

What followed the perfect game was a slog, and Cain's manager had a notion they were not unrelated.

"He was feeling the residuals of his last start," Bochy said. "I mean, you have to."

Cain didn't disagree.

"I was probably a little too amped up," he said, "trying to keep it going in a way."

See, these things can cut both ways.

That's not a bad thing. But, you probably wouldn't want to run your finger over it.

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