Just two months into his tenure with the Giants, Johnny Cueto knows as well as some of his teammates what it’s like being one-upped by Clayton Kershaw.
In 2014, Cueto had probably his best major-league season, going 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA for the Reds. The right-hander led the National League in innings pitched (243 2/3 ) and strikeouts (242) and the majors with only 6.2 hits allowed per nine innings.
But Cueto didn’t receive a single first-place vote in Cy Young Award balloting – they all went to Kershaw, who was 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA, struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings and became the first pitcher in 46 years to win the National League MVP award.
This season, Cueto, who signed a six-year, $130 million deal, is 9-1, tied for the major-league lead in wins, with a 2.16 ERA. He’s pitched the third-most innings of any big-league starter and thrown as many complete games in his 12 starts (three) as he’s allowed home runs.
Yet ask anyone who the best pitcher in baseball has been for the first two months of 2016, and the answer likely will be Kershaw, the Dodgers left-hander whose season is, even by his own lofty standards, off to a remarkable start. In 12 starts, Kershaw is 8-1 with a 1.46 ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 109-to-6 that if maintained would be unprecedented.
Cueto and Kershaw will oppose each other Friday night in the opener of what figures to be a lively series at AT&T Park. The Giants lead the N.L. West by four games over the second-place Dodgers, who are 11-6 since May 21, when they were 21-23.
“For me it’s just a normal game,” Cueto said Wednesday through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “I don’t have to show anybody anything – there’s no competition. I just have to do my job and let him do his job.”
The Giants are 11-1 in Cueto’s starts, including two wins over the Dodgers in April. On April 10, Cueto allowed five first-inning runs but pitched seven innings in a 9-6 win – an outing catcher Buster Posey said was more impressive than many of Cueto’s cleaner starts.
Posey could return to the lineup Friday after missing three games because of nerve irritation in his right thumb. His .220 lifetime average against Kershaw (18 for 82 with two home runs) looks gaudy compared with the combined numbers of all other active Giants, who are 21 for 163 (.129) with two homers, both by pitcher Madison Bumgarner.
Posey’s return would help bolster the Giants’ lineup, which is missing right fielder Hunter Pence, who had surgery Thursday on his right hamstring in Dallas, and left fielder Angel Pagan, who is nearing a rehab assignment but still on the disabled list because of a hamstring strain. Against Boston left-hander David Price on Wednesday, Giants manager Bruce Bochy used third baseman Matt Duffy as his cleanup hitter, even though Duffy is batting .237 with two home runs.
Bochy sighed a little when asked about the Cueto-Kershaw matchup and said it seems “every series we play (the Dodgers) we talk about it, the matchups – Bum-Kershaw, Cueto-Kershaw.”
This series nearly featured none of them, but the Dodgers juggled their rotation last week, giving Kenta Maeda an extra day between starts to rest a sore hand and pushing Kershaw back to Friday’s opener. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters the decision was mostly motivated by Maeda’s health.
With two off-days this week, the Giants could have juggled their rotation to have both Bumgarner and Cueto face the Dodgers, but Bochy opted to give his starters the extra rest. At one point this week, Bumgarner led the N.L. in pitches thrown, with Cueto second and Jeff Samardzija tied with Kershaw for third.
Cueto held the St. Louis Cardinals to one run in six innings in his last start despite back tightness but said Wednesday of his back, “There’s nothing wrong with it.” The extra rest between starts, Cueto said, just means he’ll be itching to take the mound Friday.
“I like to stay in a rhythm; I like to pitch every five days,” Cueto said. “Right now, I feel like I haven’t pitched in a month.”