Cain's journey to perfection

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - One of my college buddies has an annoying habit of texting me late at night when I'm trying to sleep.

This time, I'm glad he woke me up.

While I was snoozing, Matt Cain was in the midst of pitching what ESPN's Tim Kurkjian called "one of the three greatest games ever pitched in the regular season."

As soon as I sleepily flipped the channel to MLB Network in the eighth inning, I knew Cain would not be denied.

Wednesday night at AT&T Park, Cain completed the 22nd perfect game in major league history and the first ever by a member of the San Francisco Giants.

The only real danger Cain ran into was in the seventh inning when Gregor Blanco stretched out to make a diving shoestring catch reminiscent of Dewayne Wise's epic leap to preserve Mark Buehrle's perfect game three years earlier.

The rest of the night was smooth sailing for the right-hander. Of the 27 batters Cain encountered, only four of them worked a full count.

Cain's formula for success wasn't any different than his usual approach. Cain pounded the strike zone early and often (he threw strikes on 68.8 percent of his pitches) with an effective but not overpowering fastball and he did a masterful job of mixing up his pitches as the game went on.

Thursday morning, I went back and watched every out of Cain's nine-inning masterpiece. Twenty of the 27 outs Cain recorded came on fastballs, his fastest of the night clocking in at 94 mph. That 94 mph heater was also Cain's 125th and final pitch of the game.

For the other seven outs, Cain went to the change-up four times (that seems to be his out pitch against lefties), the slider twice and the curveball once.

Part of what made Cain's outing so special was how aggressive he was. He challenged Houston hitters to make a play against him and came away with a career-high 14 strikeouts. That ties him with Sandy Koufax for the most strikeouts ever recorded during a perfect game.

Of Cain's 14 punchouts, seven of them came on called strike threes while the other half were of the swinging variety. Again, Cain's 90-93 mph fastball seemed to be his most effective pitch: 11 of his 14 Ks ended on fastballs, with the other three coming on change-ups (two) and one on a lethal curve ball. That ability to keep hitters guessing must be the reason why opponents are batting only .192 against Cain this season.

Wednesday night may have been the height of Cain's dominance but really, he's been doing this all season. He's won each of his last seven starts while compiling a minuscule 1.99 ERA.

Cain is everything you desire in an elite top of the rotation starting pitcher. He eats up innings (his 95 innings pitched in 2012 is the highest in the National League), doesn't walk many hitters (his 0.85 WHIP is tops in the majors) and he'll rarely have a bad outing.

After propelling himself into the NL Cy Young discussion in thrilling fashion, Cain now looks like the favorite to start the All-Star Game in Kansas City next month. That's unless manager Tony LaRussa is partial to knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who has been equally phenomenal for the New York Mets recently (10-1, 2.20 ERA).

But there's a whole lot more to the story.

We already knew Cain was good. He's finished two of his last three seasons with an ERA under three and hasn't posted an ERA above four since his rookie season in 2006. That's why the Giants gave him the richest deal for a right-handed pitcher in major league history earlier in the season (five years, $112.5 million).

What we didn't know is that San Francisco can actually hit the ball pretty well. Last year, the Giants were dead last in the NL in run production (3.52 runs per game) and second-worst in team batting average (.242).

In 2012, it's been a totally different story. Wednesday, the Giants tagged the Astros for 10 runs and overall they're averaging a much-improved 3.95 runs per game this season. San Francisco's team batting average has shot up as well as the Giants are hitting 20 points higher (.262) than they did a season ago.

Most of the credit there has to go to Melky Cabrera (league-leading .367 batting average) and Angel Pagan (.315, 5 HRs, 22 RBIs), who have hit everything in sight since joining the club at the start of the year. Having a healthy Buster Posey (.294, 7 HRs, 33 RBIs) back in the fold hasn't hurt, either.

The offensive upgrades San Francisco has made have helped the Giants improve in the wins column as well. After not making the playoffs last season, the Giants enter the day with the third-best record in the NL at 36-27.

They've been especially unbeatable in their home ballpark: only the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers have a higher home winning percentage than the Giants do.

All of that is great news for the Giants' already terrific starting rotation. Cain (8-2, 2.18), Ryan Vogelsong (5-2, 2.26), Madison Bumgarner (8-4, 3.08) and Barry Zito (5-3, 3.24) are all receiving more run support than they ever have. Fantasy owners can finally count on the Giants' pitching staff to pick up wins. That's everybody except for Tim Lincecum, who is still trying to break out of a season-long slump (2-7, 6.00).

But whatever happens to the Giants, those of us who stayed up will never forget what Cain accomplished on June 13 against the Houston Astros.

It was an incredible evening. I'm just hoping that the next time someone decides to make history, they'll do it on the East Coast so I can actually get a couple hours of sleep.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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