Spin Forward: Braves now must deal with Cain

Spin Forward: Braves now must deal with Cain

SAN FRANCISCO -- Having endured a Freak Show for 118 pitches and 14 strikeouts worth of utter frustration in Thursday's Game 1 of the National League Division Series, the Braves now face a guy who might have had a better year than Tim Lincecum.

Facing Matt Cain in Game 2 on Friday won't be a bayside stroll at AT&T Park, that's for sure. But the Braves knew that already.

On top of that, a Giants bullpen that didn't allow a run in its final 24 innings of work in the regular season is still revving its engine in the garage, ready to burst out if needed. The Braves are well aware of that, too.

Point is, it sure doesn't get any easier on Atlanta and its patchwork offense. And that puts a little more emphasis not only on the bats putting together some rallies against Cain, but also on young starter Tommy Hanson to ensure the scoreboard stays dark for as long as possible on both lines, much the way Derek Lowe and the Braves' relief crew did Thursday.

Certainly, Lincecum set a thunderous tone with his sparkling performance in his postseason debut, and he doesn't expect anything less from Cain and Game 3 starter Jonathan Sanchez.

"I feel like these guys are definitely poised and ready to get back out there," Lincecum said in the wake of his two-hit shutout of the Braves. "I was scratching to get on that field after six or seven days off. I'm sure these guys are itching to get that second wind.

"And [the Game 1 win] gives us a little bit of a springboard to go off of and tack on tomorrow. I feel Matty and Sanch are going to be fine."

Cain, it should be noted, was more than fine all year -- maybe he had a dud a month, but he wound up with a 3.18 ERA that was 29 points lower than Lincecum, and he ranked sixth in the NL in both WHIP (allowing a career-low 1.084 walks and hits per inning pitched) and innings pitched (223 1/3, a career high).

Nobody is Big Time Timmy Jim when it comes to dominance. When Lincecum is on like he was with his breaking stuff early and his rising heat late, there isn't a lineup in the league that's stepping up to the plate with an air of confidence. When he's dealing, it's generally all an opponent can do to get runners in scoring position -- which the Braves did just twice, with Omar Infante's double to lead off the game and Brian McCann's double in the seventh.

But Cain has had his moments of pure dominance this season, perhaps none more glaring than when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Sept. 26 in Colorado. It turned into a 4-2 Giants win that put a dagger in the Rockies' season. The gem was one of four complete games for Cain on the year, including a pair of shutouts.

He followed up his mastery in Colorado with one of his few tough outings of the season, allowing six earned runs in just four innings to the Padres -- a lineup no more potent than the Braves' -- in the opener of the season-ending three-game set with the NL West on the line. The bullpen pitched five shutout innings the rest of the way as the Giants mounted a comeback that fell short.

For his part, Cain is determined to take the good and the bad from his final start of the regular season and turn it into a learning experience.

"I think that was definitely a very exciting game, because I had the opportunity to be able to close out those guys the first night," said Cain, who lost his one start against the Braves on Aug. 7, allowing three earned runs in five innings. "So I think that was definitely a test. And I think that I'll use that to my advantage for [Friday] night and carry some of that."

The other side of the coin is that the Giants didn't exactly turn Lincecum's dominance into a blowout, a testament not only to Lowe's penchant for inducing ground balls, but also to the San Francisco offense's struggles with run production. Expecting another shutout from Cain is asking a lot out of any pitcher making his own postseason debut.

Still, the one run was enough in Game 1. San Francisco played in eight 1-0 games in the regular season, winning just three of them. Thursday's 1-0 victory carried a little more weight and sets up the series to be in the Giants' court.

"We only could push one run across, and tonight one run was enough for Tim and we ended up getting the win," said outfielder Cody Ross, who drove in that run with an RBI single in the fourth inning. "The series is going to be like that. We've prepared ourselves in the past to play in close games and nail-biters, but tonight was a big win for us to start the series."

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.