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Johnny Cueto and Joe Panik down the Dodgers in historic fashion

After quickly becoming an industry afterthought, Johnny Cueto reminded us all why he still matters. Meanwhile, Joe Panik continues to carry the offense.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you just want to get out of the way and let the star have the spotlight.

Joe Panik hit what wound up being game-winning home runs off of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen in consecutive nights. These are the two most powerful weapons the Dodgers have and the Giants staved off knockout punches from either thanks to one of the least likely players in the lineup to deliver the counterboom. There’s baseball being unpredictable, there’s baseball being weird, but this is baseball being fun.

Because it’s the Dodgers.

Because we know the Dodgers are going to be there every year with an endless supply of power and talent. They are a Tiffany’s with full concierge service, champagne and strawberries while you shop and gaze at the beautiful displays. The Giants are a garage sale at the end of its scheduled hours. The rivalry is a facet of this, but this is also a David and Goliath scenario, despite the fact that David has a ton of debt on his credit card and while he’s spent a lot of money has far less to show for it than the old rich Dodgers.

But I’m straying away from my point here. Through two games — the largest possible sample size this early in the season — Joe Panik is the only Giants’ hitter who looks like he’s ready for the regular season. The front office opted to give their older players a lot of days off in Spring Training (keeping in mind that the vast majority of the roster is comprised of older players), and so that’s why Evan Longoria and Buster Posey are out in front of everything and Andrew McCutchen’s timing isn’t quite there yet. Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford have looked positively overmatched in two games against two very tough lefties, Austin Jackson has looked okay and Hunter Pence has looked Pencey enough, but it’s Joe Panik who’s taking pitches and swinging with purpose and authority. Kenley Jansen tried to repeat the strike one cutter he threw, but Joe Panik and his stable, compact swing was ready for it.

The Giants are going to need this sort of weirdness if they’re to hang tough until Bumgarner returns. Maybe this week it’s Joe Panik, maybe next week it’s Austin Jackson... or maybe it’ll be Johnny Cueto again.

Tonight’s Dodger TV broadcast spent a lot of time talking about Johnny Cueto as though his career had effectively ended last season. The mood around here and elsewhere on the Giants beat felt the same. Were the Giants getting a guy who simply wanted to opt into his contract extension with no chance of making a significant contribution or... yeah, it’s the or. He overpowered the Dodgers with his location and his variety. A slider here, a 92 mph fastball there. Oh look, I’ve got a changeup for you.

Johnny Cueto is still Johnny Cueto, and tonight’s performance was a flashback to his first month as a Giant.

Pasted from Baseball-Reference:

His stuff was magical that first month. Recall that he got smacked around the first time he faced the Dodgers, but that in his second start against them within that first month held LA to 1 hit through six innings. The “lost” 2017 season could still be a portent, but at least for tonight, Johnny Cueto was the guy they signed to a big-money deal and the same player most of us wanted to stick around after 2016.

Tonight could just as easily be, if not a portent, then a road map for just how he’s going to craft his performances over the rest of his deal. It was another glimpse of hope for the season, too. The Giants were going to need a bounce back season from Johnny Cueto. Maybe, just maybe...

The last time the Giants opened a season with back-to-back shutouts was 1994, only, they scored 10 combined runs in those first two games. So, historically, this is better and since it happened against the Dodgers, it will be impossible to top in the future.

Also, the 1994 season ended with a strike. Is Joe Panik homering the Players’ Union towards an uncertain future?

We can be certain that the Giants have read and absorbed some advanced analytics because their shift against Cody Bellinger involved moving Evan Longoria over to the second baseman’s area while putting Joe Panik in the ranger/rover RF spot. My guess is that the models say Longoria covers the most ground on the infield so why not put him in a shift position where he’ll be able to do exactly that, with Panik essentially backing him up.

The other part of this is that the Giants let Tony Watson face right-handed hitters two nights in a row, eschewing conventional LOOGY wisdom. Watson has a pronounced platoon split. On the surface, it seems like an extremely bad idea to let him face Yasmani Grandal and Matt Kemp — man, that’s really Matt Kemp, isn’t it? — when both are capable of ripping one over the fence, but both had well below average numbers against left-handed pitchers. Now, looking at lefty-righty splits is not an advanced analytic, but whatever they did to convince Bruce Bochy that a left-handed pitcher can in some situations actually face a right-handed batter must’ve involved science so advanced as to appear magic.

Finally, and most importantly, Tony Watson has struck out 5 of the first 6 hitters he’s faced. It’s important to point that out because it’s almost a miracle the Giants managed to sign a reliever who was effective right out of the box. The Giants are going to need this kind of weirdness until Will Smith returns.

And then there’s Hunter Strickland...

He’s been effective in stretches before, but it seemed like whenever that was pointed out, he’d shrink from the attention and just be generally bad. Closing back-to-back 1-0 games on the road is the highest degree of difficulty for any closer, let a lone the emergency guy, but especially for the guy who might let things get stuck in his head from time to time. It’s hard to know if the bevy of backup sliders Strickland threw last night and tonight were part of the plan or just a happy accident — but in any case, they worked. And he seemed to take a couple of miles off his fastball to allow him to gain a bit more control to punch the corners with more authority. In short, Hunter Strickland has looked like a solid closer and the best version of himself as a relief pitcher.

The Giants are going to need this kind of weirdness if they’re going to make a run.