SAN FRANCISCO — Cap on backward, Johnny Cueto punctuated his pitches with confident head shakes and fist pumps.
“Dia De Cueto,” read the sign held by one of his sons.
The Day of Cueto, indeed.
Cueto dazzled over five shutout innings in his long-awaited season debut for San Francisco, showing he can reach top form again 13 months after Tommy John surgery while leading the Giants over the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-4 on Tuesday night.
“Like it was opening day,” he said.
The charismatic right-hander, far fitter and stronger than before he got hurt, allowed one hit, struck out four and walked one. He had been scheduled to throw about 70 pitches and wound up at 69.
Stephen Vogt hit a two-run homer and drove in four runs. His two-run single in the first off rookie Mitch Keller (1-4) staked Cueto to a quick lead and Brandon Crawford added an RBI single as four of the first five batters got hits.
“That was a special night for Johnny, just so much hard work and coming back from so much,” said Vogt, who caught Cueto’s comeback outing. “Getting to be a small part of that with him was pretty special for me. It’s been a long road for him to come back. He was just so happy today — before the game, during the game, after the game you could just tell he was having fun.”
Cueto went 1-2-3 in the first on 11 pitches with a strikeout and two groundouts before turning his cap around just for fun and pumping his fists.
He punched his hand into his glove in celebration, chomping his gum all the while.
“That’s my game, every time I pitch just try to have fun,” he said.
Cueto, who pitched his first 7 1/2 seasons with Cincinnati, is 21-4 with a 2.13 ERA over 31 career regular-season starts against the Pirates. He has won nine straight decisions, not including playoffs, facing Pittsburgh since his last loss on May 30, 2012.
Cueto drew cheers from the small number of fans in the ballpark when he took the field to warm up some 30 minutes before first pitch, then received a rousing ovation during pregame introductions.
The 33-year-old Cueto pitched in the big leagues for the first time since July 28 last year. He came back in better shape than before thanks in large part to a healthier diet that included fish and salads.
Cueto won 18 games for San Francisco in 2016 and started the All-Star game that year while dealing with the discomfort he referred to as stabbing pain in the pitching elbow for three years . He’s in the fourth season of a $130 million, six-year contract he signed before the 2016 season.
“It’s easy when you’re in a situation like Johnny’s, you can be comfortable. You’re set for life but he wants to get back and compete, and compete at the highest level. He’s taken such great care of himself and worked hard to get to this point,” manager Bruce Bochy said before the game.
Shaun Anderson earned his first save as the Giants won at home for only the sixth time in their last 18 games. Keller had left his start last Tuesday against the Marlins after taking a line drive off the wrist on his pitching hand in the second inning.