PHOENIX – His helmet threatened to pop off his head as he ran. His heel barely touched the edge of home plate. His pregame meal might have sloshed a bit, too.
After Johnny Cueto completed his 270-foot sprint to score from first base, he smiled between deep inhalations in the dugout.
Now this was the kind of relief the Giants needed.
Their offense was relentless while chasing Arizona left-hander Patrick Corbin after four innings, and then they smacked around the Diamondbacks bullpen while taking an 8-4 victory at Chase Field.
The team that spent $62 million on Mark Melancon reminded itself that there’s an even better way to win: without need of a save. Gorkys Hernandez, who played because of Denard Span’s sore left hip, drove in four runs from the leadoff spot and Brandon Crawford carried over his star-spangled bat from the World Baseball Classic to contribute a double and homer as the Giants recovered from their late-inning debacle in Sunday’s season-opening loss here.
Cueto contributed more than his right arm and a few shoulder dips from the mound to win his season debut. He also pulled back a bunt attempt and chopped a single to set up the Giants’ first run in the second inning. And when he reached on an error in the fifth, he completed a lung-searing dash to follow Joe Panik home and score on Hernandez’s two-run double into the left field corner.
“I wasn’t coasting — more of a hard jog home,” Panik said. “And then I turn around, and it was like, `Oh, here’s Johnny!’”
Hernandez looked on with amazement as Cueto sprinted home. So did Bochy, who joked that he might have Cueto race Jeff Samardzija for the right to be top pinch running option among his pitching staff.
“Crawford says Samardzija is the fastest, then Bumgarner,” Cueto said in Spanish. “So I think I’m the fifth fastest on the team.”
Eduardo Nuñez kidded Cueto, telling him to slow down, since it’s only the second game of the season. But joking aside, the appreciation ran deep in the clubhouse for a top tier pitcher who expended that kind of complete effort in the second game of the year.
“He’s probably in better shape than a lot of guys on this team,” Panik said. “It just shows the kind of not just pitcher but ballplayer he is. A lot of pitchers would take it easy. He’s playing the game hard, and it shows you a lot about his character.”
All that activity on the bases would have wiped out almost any pitcher making their first start of the season, let alone one who reported to camp 17 days late because he was attending to his father, Domingo, who had suffered a stroke.
But Cueto gutted past a couple of mistake pitches to get through five innings, and what the bullpen avoided in terms of leveraged outs was more than offset by the number they had to record.
They took over with a four-run lead and did not allow the Diamondbacks to play rally pinball in their lively ballpark. George Kontos had the most impressive appearance, using a four-pitch assortment to go through the heart of Arizona’s lineup – Paul Goldschmidt plus lefty hitters David Peralta and Jake Lamb — and strand an inherited runner in the seventh.
Kontos could become the dependable presence that the Giants lacked when they lost Will Smith to Tommy John surgery – a durable pitcher with the stuff to handle a full setup inning regardless of matchups.
“I had the right people around me the last few years and I’m trying to follow their example,” Kontos said. “With being more comfortable comes more confidence. I’ve always taken pride in getting lefties out. When we only carried (Ty Blach), I knew some of that workload would fall on me. Left, right, I’m ready for the challenge.”
Big innings and clutch hits can bring relief, too. Although the Giants blew two save chances and three leads in their season-opening loss, there was little doubt that Bochy grumbled more about his team’s 1-for-10 performance with runners in scoring position.
Those hits came easier Tuesday night. Hunter Pence and Panik each had three hits, and a nice bit of gamesmanship helped the Giants score their first run.
Cueto had shown bunt with two aboard in the second inning, but Goldschmidt had charged aggressively from first base on a fouled attempt. So Cueto elected to swing at the next pitch, and the gambit resulted in a chopped single down the first base line that loaded the bases.
Bochy said the read to swing belonged to Cueto.
“You couldn’t have chopped the ball over Goldy’s head any better,” Bochy said. “It’s something you work on. He was right down his throat and he didn’t want to bunt it right to him.”
Said Cueto: “I just saw the first baseman was close to me and I just said, `You know what? I’ll swing away.’”
Hernandez followed with a one-out single to center that broke his bat, and Panik got such an accurate read that he ended up scoring right on the heels of Nuñez.
“Probably the only time that will happen,” said Panik, about drafting the speedy Nuñez to the plate. “Seeing (Arizona second baseman Brandon) Drury run after it like he did, and being a second baseman myself, I kind of knew. Sometimes you’ve got to play a hunch.”
Panik had an all-around solid game. In addition to getting on base four times in the No.8 spot, he also contributed two difficult defensive plays to help stem rallies.
“You can tell he’s healthy,” Bochy said. “The way he’s moving around, running the bases, he’s got a different look to him.”
The Giants weren’t sure when Span would be healthy. He said he woke up sore Monday morning, and didn’t know when he might have aggravated his hip. It’s the same side he had surgically repaired in 2015, but said the discomfort is in a different spot. No tests have been scheduled yet and Span was unsure whether he could return to the lineup Wednesday.
Hernandez said he didn’t know he was playing until he arrived at the ballpark and looked at the lineup.
“The bench plays such a critical part in your season,” Bochy said. “When these guys deliver for you, it makes it so much easier to rest guys. You can put someone in there who can soften the blow.”
Hernandez had a rough spring, possibly in part because he didn’t play winter ball for the first time. He might have played his way onto the bubble before finding his stroke in the last week of camp.
“It was his job to lose this spring, and in the early go, it was tough sledding for him,” Bochy said. “He was here in January working at it. But in the end, he got his timing.”
The Giants timed Corbin quickly enough, forcing hi from the game after throwing 87 pitches in four innings; over these first two games, Arizona starters Corbin and Zack Greinke were made to throw 179 pitches over nine innings.
This time, the Giants took advantage of seeing the hindquarters of Arizona’s bullpen. The Giants broke it open with a five-run fifth that started with Crawford’s homer off reliever Randall Delagado and didn’t end until Crawford grounded out. The inning included Hernandez’s two-run double and Cueto’s mad dash to the plate.
Cueto might have flagged a bit in the bottom of the fifth, when he surrendered a two-run home run to Lamb. But he won his fifth consecutive start at Chase Field and improved to 19-5 as he begins his second season with the Giants.
If you can’t hit two home runs, you might as well run hard.