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Johnny Cueto goes the distance, Giants win

The Giants have a two-game lead in the wild card race with 16 games left to play. They’re also four back of the Dodgers.

Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

And you all thought I was being silly when I posted those signs on every telephone pole and laundromat bulletin board. All of the prank calls I got were worth it. Finally, we have the first-half Giants back. For the next 21 hours, at least. But I’ll take it.

I remember this team. I remember them. They were a lot of fun.

On Thursday night, the Giants opened a four-game series against one of the teams chasing them for the wild card, and they looked stellar. Johnny Cueto pitched magnificently. They hit well. They fielded well. Why, the bullpen didn’t even allow a baserunner. Everything made sense, and you remembered why it was so easy to be optimistic before the All-Star break.

It was a very, very first-half win. Consider that the Giants’ pitching staff doesn’t just lead the National League in complete games; they’re lapping the other teams. They entered Thursday night’s game with nine complete games, and the Cubs were in second place with five. That’s a huge gap, but the most telling part is that eight of those nine complete games were in the first half. The ninth was a 1-0 loss. This was the first complete game the Giants have won since Madison Bumgarner disassembled the Diamondbacks in the last game of the first half.

So you can understand why it feels familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Familiar because you’ve seen Giants pitchers do this, over and over again. Cueto needed eight pitches to get through the first inning, and he beat away the pitch-count gremlins with a stick before they could be a whisper of a hint of an issue.

An aside: If I ever manage the Giants, I will put Santiago Casilla in the ninth inning of games like this. Because I would have seen a lot of baseball by that point, and I’m sure I would get bored. It would be like stealing random cars in Grand Theft Auto and driving them off bridges or into pedestrians. Vote Grant for manager.

It’s unfamiliar because when a Giants pitcher has thrown well in the second half, it’s always come with a caveat. Yeah, he threw well, BUT he was at 100 pitches after the seventh, so he had to come out. Or, that was great, BUT the Giants had five hits, and four of the runners got picked off. Or, wow, what an outing, BUT Corey Seager still smells like the devil’s placenta, which will happen when you’re borne of fire and pestilence.

There was no but in this game. For one, it was a complete game, so George Kontos didn’t even need to come in, but seriously folks, it was just a tremendous outing that didn’t need a qualifier. Cueto pitched. The Giants hit. Then they added on. It seems so simple when you put it like that.

Bonus: The Cardinals and their fans really, really hate Cueto. I know, I know. He’s so mirthful! But they think they have their reasons, and that makes this extra funny.

For me, the purest inning was the ninth. Cueto pumped a 94-mph fastball with perfect top-zone location past Brandon Moss for the first out. Brandon Crawford ranged deep into the hole to his right and got Yadier Molina by three steps for the second out. And the final out of the game came on an unremarkable fly ball with negligible drama. The ninth inning took 15 pitches, and at no point did you think, "IT BEGINS. THE TREMBLING HORROR FROM BEYOND THE GRAY DEPTHS."

In this game, Johnny Cueto pitched like it was 1958 and the manager was going to let him throw 12 innings if he needed to. And he also mixed in a hard-hit sacrifice fly between two don’t-give-a-crap bunt attempts, which showed off his impeccable timing. It was Cueto’s night, and I’m glad he let us watch.

Though he probably would have Instagrammed it if we weren’t able to watch. In the interest of science, I’d actually have preferred that, but this will do. This will do just fine.

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With one more complete game, the Giants will have as many as any team in the AT&T Park era, tied with the 2009 staff. They had just two in 2013, remember, so this doesn’t have to happen all the time.

Though if you’re going to have just two complete games, a Tim Lincecum no-hitter and a Yusmeiro Petit near-perfect game are a pretty cool way to go.

The Giants don’t have their no-hitter this year, remember. That could be the AT&T Park-era record, you know. It seems less impressive when you realize that the 1968 Giants had 77 complete games, but work with me, here.

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Thursday night’s lineup, by OPS:

Pagan - .752
Panik - .719
Posey - .804
Pence - .836
Belt - .850
Crawford - .760
Nuñez - .764
Span - .698

The eighth-place hitter is the only dud in the bunch, and even then, that’s not a Neifi Perez line. It’s a lineup without anyone having a career year, so you can get why they’ve been a little underwhelming overall, but it should be a lineup filled with tough outs.

Mostly, though, what that list does is make you think, "Man, those guys all must have been something in the first half of the season if they’re still above water after this second half." Which is entirely accurate. And it’s why we’re all waiting for a sustained hot stretch. Any day now.

I can pretend it started tonight, sure. With Buster Posey, specifically. He had the opposite-field approach, and he had enough juice to get a ball over the center fielder for a double, which isn’t something we’ve seen a lot of.

He might be sore and achy. Dinged up, as they say. But that doesn’t mean he’s without one or two more hot streaks in him this season. It doesn’t have to be the likeliest scenario, but it wouldn’t be 80-point-font surprising if he got in one of his ultra-torrid streaks. Dings, nicks, and all.

Denard Span had a walk and two hits — including a most welcome two-out, two-RBI single to break the game open. Brandon Belt had two walks (scoring both times) and a couple of hard-hit outs. Eduardo Nuñez did the same things he did on the day the Giants’ scout showed up in Minnesota. The only hitter in the lineup that didn’t have at least one positive result (hit, walk, sac fly) was Joe Panik, and he was victimized by the BABIPdook twice.

Extend that 80-point-font theory to the entire lineup. Can you imagine that list of players up there having a month where most of them were clicking? Where there were FanGraphs articles about The Lineup The Giants Built and extended segments on MLB Network where ex-ballplayers all explained why the Giants were destined to have one of the better lineups in baseball?

Of course you can. So let’s just applaud their timing because that’s totally happening over the next five weeks.

Hey, the Giants won a game against a direct competitor for a postseason start, and they looked great doing it. We can daydream a little bit. Don’t wave this away. Johnny Cueto is absolutely fantastic, and it’s not unrealistic to think the lineup will shake off the gremlins one of these games.

Maybe even this game.

Sure. Maybe even this game.

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