SAN FRANCISCO - Johnny Cueto was ready to bring some swagger back to a club coming off an embarrassing series at Coors Field. He wore a white jumpsuit to the park and topped that outfit with a white hat that had his face on the front and the initials JC on the left side. Cueto did, in fact, wear a Cueto hat to his post-game media session, but that was the only highlight on an otherwise lifeless night for a team that once again is stumbling.
Cueto gave up five runs in his first start since April 28, the lineup managed just two hits and two runs after scoring three in a series in Denver, and the bullpen kept piling on after Cueto departed. The Giants lost their fourth straight, 11-2 this time, looking flat in the first of four games against the Cardinals. The lineup looked like it could use a shakeup. Cueto looked like he could use another rehab start.
"It's not easy," he said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "You have to keep working and working until you get back to where I was. It's not easy, but I just have to keep my head up and keep working."
Cueto smiled several times while answering questions about his five innings, and perhaps that's because at one point he didn't think he would make this start. A month ago, Cueto thought he was headed for Tommy John surgery. After getting the all-clear from Dr. James Andrews, he pushed the rehab pace. Cueto threw 48 pitches for Triple-A Sacramento on June 23 and 69 more last Friday, and when he had a solid bullpen session on Monday, the Giants decided that was enough. It now appears that it wasn't.
The Cardinals jumped on Cueto from the start, scoring four runs in the first and one more in the second. Jedd Gyorko took a poorly-placed 89-mph sinker the opposite way for a three-run homer and Matt Carpenter crushed an 85-mph cutter-that-didn't-cut into the right field seats.
Cueto repeatedly tried to establish his changeup and slider at the bottom of the zone in the first inning, and he finally found some success with that plan in his final three innings, although none of them were clean. He never was able to establish the fastball, though. Just 27 of Cueto's 76 pitches registered as fastballs, and only one - at 91.7 mph - was thrown harder than 91. Four others ticked in at 90 mph, and the rest were below that, well below Cueto's norm. He topped out at 94 mph in April, although his average velocity was generally down then, too.
Asked if Cueto's velocity will tick up as he gets more time on a big league mound, manager Bruce Bochy, generally an optimist, admitted he did not know.
"It's hard to say, it is," Bochy said. "We'll have a better idea with his next start or two, but you look at his early work and that's about where his comfort zone is, 90 (mph), and that works with his command."
Cueto was charged with five earned on 10 hits and two walks. He struck out two and got just eight swinging strikes. He said he felt healthy, though, and perhaps that was the biggest takeaway from the night.
Of course, even if Cueto had been at his best, the Giants still would have struggled to snap their latest skid. The lineup didn't manage a hit until the sixth. Luke Weaver dominated a group that has scored five runs in the last four games.
"You get a couple of hits and a couple runs, that's not going to work. We saw that in Colorado," Bochy said. "Hopefully we come out of this thing soon and take some pressure off these pitchers."