DETROIT -- Consistently unjust, unfair and unkind, baseball rarely rewards those who truly deserve it. Then once in a while the game surprises, and someone like Matt Cain has a year like 2012.
Cain, long the steadying rock of the Giants' rotation, posted the finest season of his exemplary career in '12, setting full-season personal bests in wins, ERA, strikeouts, and walks. But the baseball-card line doesn't approach doing justice to a year like this. Virtually every item on a pitcher's bucket list, Cain got to check off within the past seven months.
In April, he agreed to a new six-year contract that could be worth $141 million. In June, he threw the 22nd perfect game in Major League history, and maybe the finest of them all, with 14 strikeouts. In July, he started the All-Star Game, pitching two shutout innings and being credited with the win. That was a pretty good start, and he was just getting rolling.
Once October began, it got even better. Cain pitched Game 1 of the Giants' National League Division Series, and then the clinching Game 5 as the Giants completed a historic comeback against the Reds. In the NL Championship Series, Cain pitched Game 3 and the clinching Game 7, completing yet another Giants comeback. And then to top it all off, Cain pitched seven strong innings in Game 4 of the Fall Classic, starting yet another clincher for the World Series champs.
He was, without doubt, the man the Giants wanted on the mound in their biggest games. And they got just that, again and again.
Most World Series titles
"He wouldn't have it any other way than to have a chance to finish the season off like he did," said catcher Buster Posey. "To have a chance in a Game 7 against the Cardinals, you want those type of guys on the team who want the ball and want to have that opportunity to help the team."
With Cain at the middle of one historic moment after another, it would be tempting to draw some kind of Forest Gump parallel. Except that Cain didn't just happen to be there for the special occasions -- he helped make them happen. And though he didn't receive a decision in Sunday's Game 4 win against the Tigers, make no mistake, he helped make that happen, too.
Cain allowed three runs on five hits over seven innings, striking out five against two walks. He was reached for two homers, but still provided the quality innings that helped keep the Giants from dipping too deep into their bullpen, too early.
For the postseason, he posted a 3.60 ERA in five starts, with the Giants winning three of those games. It raised some eyebrows when San Francisco chose Ryan Vogelsong to start Game 3 over Cain for the World Series, but it worked out perfectly.
"This was such an unbelievable year from the start to the finish," Cain said, "with being able to get a deal done with the Giants, and know that I'll be with these guys for my career. And then some of the things that happened throughout the season with the perfect game and then being able to start the All-Star Game, and especially being able to start that game with Buster. That means a lot to me.
"And then obviously what we just did these last couple months is a pretty full year, and something that I'm going to enjoy, definitely, sitting down and watching at the end of the year."
There could be no better candidate from the Giants to have a year like this. Tim Lincecum was the bigger star, the Cy Young Award winner. Barry Zito has the historic contract and Cy Young Award in his trophy case. Vogelsong has the amazing comeback story. Madison Bumgarner could be better than any of them down the road.
But Cain, in his eighth season as a Giant, is simply a fixture. He gives 200 quality innings every year. He stays healthy, pitches deep into games and deep into seasons, and he's been a star in the postseason.
"I've seen him since he was 18," said pitching coach Dave Righetti. "In our game, guys that can take the ball and make changes, not just pound their head against the wall and say, 'I'm going to give you the innings but I'm going to get beat up,' I'm not going to take that. We want you to get better and find a way to be a great pitcher, and he's a great pitcher."
And within the clubhouse, it's hard to find someone better regarded.
"For me, it's really special," Posey said. "Cain's become a good friend of mine over the last three years. I know what type of person he is. I know how hard he works. It's definitely gratifying to see somebody of his talent have the success he has."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.