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Johnny Cueto triumphant in return from Tommy John surgery

Johnny Cueto threw 69 pitches in his 2019 debut.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Francisco Giants Cody Glenn-USA TODAY Sports

Johnny Cueto’s days are numbered and he knows it.

He’ll be 34 at the start of next season. What would a 20-month layoff between major league games look like for him? He didn’t want to find out. He pushed to come back a little over a year after Tommy John surgery. He committed to retaining his status as a top of the rotation starter, or at the very least maintain the possibility of holding onto that status once 2020 rolled around. Can you blame him?

There was not one moment in tonight’s game, his first major league game since July 28th of last year, that he did not look like Peak Johnny Cueto. I’m talking about the pitcher who got Cy Young and MVP votes in 2016 and kicked off the first month of last season with an 0.84 ERA through his first five starts.

You might’ve figured there’d be something a little off, something you could see and think, “Yeah, he’ll need to work on that, build his strength, get used to game speed,” or whatever else your genius mind might come up with, but Cueto defied convention, as is his way. He had the shimmy working. He had the hesitation working. And his stuff was perfect. It was Johnny Cueto’s stuff.

A fastball that worked 91-92. A slider with bite. And an impossible changeup.

Major league hitters have had a whiff rate between 35-40% against Cueto’s changeup for his career. It’s his most effective put away pitch. Here’s the first swing-through he got with it tonight.

That was against batting title contender Bryan Reynolds. Sure, he has a 22.3% strikeout rate, but against the Giants, he’s looked like a jilted prospect out for revenge. Cueto tamed the beast and did it early. This at bat ended in a strikeout — on his slider.

Again, everything was working. Everything was perfect.

He walked off the mound to a nice standing ovation near the dugout after an 11-pitch first inning. He had four 1-pitch outs for the game. He threw 69 pitches in five innings on a 70-pitch limit to get his first win since April 28, 2018. He walked off the mound to a standing ovation from the entire stadium after striking out Kevin Kramer on the eighth pitch of the at bat.

This wasn’t a playoff game. It carried no implications for the postseason. At best, it was a game that would help Bruce Bochy get closer to 2,000 career wins as a manager. But that wasn’t the point of why Johnny Cueto rushed back.

He wanted to show the world that he was still Johnny Cueto — that he’s not finished just yet. It was beautiful.

One last note on Cueto’s incredible night: that was his 30th win as a Giant in his 67th start. His W-L record since 2016 is 30-15. He’s also now 21-4 in 31 career starts against the Pirates.

Mitch Keller is the Pirates’ top pitching prospect and if you caught any of the game it was easy to see why. He pumped 97 mph fastballs on the black through five innings. He struck out 7 and walked 0. Coming into the game, he had a near-elite 44:12 strikeouts to walk ratio and a sub-4.00 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) against an 8+ ERA.

Remember, FIP is there to give you a pitcher’s ERA based on what is generally believed to be the only events within a pitcher’s control: walks, home runs, hit by pitches, and strikeouts. That ERA, though, is just an estimate based on those totals. You can see how his great stuff couldn’t overcome for spotty command when it came to secondary pitches.

You can see how his fastball’s movement is not quite overpowering enough to not adjust to, either. It doesn’t quite have that “second stage”. Combine that with a slider and curve ball that are a lot more normal-looking, and it made for a bumpy night.

Keller thought he could overpower Old Man Stephen Vogt in the first inning, throwing three fastballs 97+ mph at the top of the strike zone. And then he thought he could trick Vogt by throwing an 0-2 slider, only he missed his location just enough that Vogt was able to hit it for a single and score the Giants’ first two runs of the game.

Vogt would go on to have 4 RBI in the game — the sixth time in his career he’s had a 4+ RBI game, and first since September 2016 — and it was those last two that really showed the rookie he still has some stuff to learn.

In the bottom of the 5th, Keller again tried to pump fastballs by Stephen Vogt at the top or just above the top of the strike zone. But Keller’s velocity had dipped down to 95 and Vogt wasn’t swinging through the pitches, he was fouling them off. On the fourth fastball of the at bat, this happened:

Stephen Vogt was pulled from the game in the 9th inning so that Buster Posey could be behind the plate in case the Pirates got any base runners against tonight’s closer, Shaun Anderson. If you haven’t caught on by now, Shaun Anderson looks like a lock to be a part of next year’s bullpen. His stuff is completely different in short spurts.

Vogt acknowledges what we already know... and more.

Let me put it this way: if Stephen Vogt is not campaigning to become the Giants manager next season, he’s still polling at 15% heading into the Iowa caucuses. He might want to think about it. So should the Giants.

Of course, Shaun Anderson needed to close things out despite the Giants having a 5-0 lead at one point because the soft middle of the bullpen once again couldn’t hold the lead. But the team managed to record its 34th one-run win of the season and 18th at Oracle Park, Mauricio Dubon threw his young body all around the infield to make or nearly make some great plays and had two hits from the leadoff spot.

Jaylin Davis didn’t have any hits but showed his range in right field late in the game. Brandon Crawford’s RBI single was on one of the most defensive-ass swings I’ve ever seen; and, overall, despite not really getting hot, Crawford seems to have pulled himself back from the brink of oblivion (.719 OPS over his last 22 games — not unbearably awful for a shortstop).

It was a night of positives in a season of bummers, and a night that made it a lot easier to look forward to Johnny Cueto and the Giants in 2020.