Fans flocked to Chukchansi Park to watch Matt Cain again.
Fresno Grizzlies players eagerly awaited the opportunity to hit against the three-time All Star.
And though Thursday might not have seen the version of Cain that helped the San Francisco Giants to three World Series championships, it didn’t seem to matter.
For many, seeing Cain in a Triple-A rehab start for the Sacramento River Cats might be as close as they come to one of baseball’s top pitchers.
“I know the guys enjoy the challenge,” said Grizzlies third baseman Matt Duffy, who 10 days earlier hit a solo home run off Cain in Sacramento. “It’s kind of fun to say you faced one of the best.
“The name carries a lot of weight. If we want to make it to the big leagues, these are the types of guys we’re going to be facing.”
Showing off his five-pitch repertoire (four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, curve and changeup), Cain limited the Grizzlies to two runs on four hits and two walks while picking up the victory in a 7-5 win for the Sacramento, which became the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate in the offseason.
Cain left after 5.2 innings and 98 pitches, 63 for strikes.
“This is the best I felt in a long time and it’s exciting,” Cain said. “It feels really good to have that feeling. And to be that close to stepping back out there is a nice feeling.
“The past few starts have been really good. I’ve been able to throw most of my pitches for strikes. And being out there to stretch that pitch count has been really good.”
Cain, 30, had a pitch count of 90 to 100 as continues to work rigorously to get back to the form that made him a Cy Young candidate and helped the Giants win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
An elbow injury that required surgery has prevented Cain from pitching in the majors since July 2014, but he has gone from 55 to 74 to 89 and now 98 pitches in three rehab starts for the River Cats and one for the Giants’ Double-A team in Richmond, Virginia.
“This is Cain’s spring training,” said River Cats manager Bob Mariano, who spent the previous three seasons managing the Grizzlies. “We want to stretch him out, build up his arm strength. And hopefully, we can get him up to the Giants and he can help them win some more.”
352Days passed since Matt Cain last pitched in the majors, caused by an elbow injury
There is some urgency for Cain to return to top form, with the Giants in another heated divisional race. They trail the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West by one game.
Cain believes he’s ready to return to the majors.
Fans, though, seemed to cherish Cain’s return to Fresno a decade after he suited up for the Grizzlies and set the franchise single-season strikeout record in 2005.
Fans— some passionately backing the Giants and some more general Grizzlies fans — loudly cheered his name during pregame introductions and when he took the mound for the bottom of the first.
They swarmed the stands near the visitor’s bullpen to capture photos and maybe even an autograph during warmups.
Ten years ago, when Cain played for the Grizzlies as a rising young prospect, it took awhile for his starts to create a stir.
But with his rise to ace status with the Giants, Cain had everyone’s attention.
“Cain, I love you,” a female fan screamed. “Get better.”
Thursday was expected to be Cain’s final rehab start before returning to the San Francisco Giants
Cain, too, enjoyed the quick trip to Fresno.
Though he said he had trouble recalling exactly where he lived and how to get around town, he did remember his way to the downtown ballpark.
“It was really cool to come back and play down here,” Cain said. “I have some good memories from 2005 playing for these guys. It was a good time for me.”
Grizzlies, Judge named to Futures
Two Grizzlies players were named to the All-Star Futures Game, an exhibition for organized baseball’s top young prospects.
Tony Kemp, a second baseman and outfielder, and starting pitcher Mark Appel were selected to the 25-player U.S. team, which will face a team of young international stars July 12 as part of All-Star Weekend in Cincinnati.
Kemp and Appel had spent the majority of this season with Double-A Corpus Christi but were promoted to Triple-A this month.
Former Fresno State outfielder Aaron Judge also is on the U.S. team. Judge has spent the majority of this season with Double-A Trenton but recently earned a promotion to the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Ex-Visalia Rawhide outfielder Socrates Brito, now with Arizona’s Double-A team in Mobile, Alabama, was named to the World Team.