SAN FRANCISCO — Bruce Bochy gave his guys an afternoon off from batting practice and a late report time to the ballpark. His players got a chance to rest up a bit and refresh themselves with a mental break from the September grind.
It went so well, the Giants’ manager is going with the same plan Friday.
“I think it was a really good call by Boch,” outfielder Hunter Pence said. “He had a big impact on refueling us.”
And then, Johnny Cueto went out and inspired his teammates with a timely gem.
The fist-pumping pitcher tossed a five-hitter and retired his final 17 batters, and San Francisco gained ground in the playoff race with a 6-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.
“Every game that I pitch or will pitch from now on, I’m going to treat it like a playoff game,” Cueto said.
The Cardinals’ loss clinched the NL Central title for the Chicago Cubs.
Pence hit a two-run homer, Cueto (16-5) had a go-ahead sacrifice fly and Angel Pagan followed with an RBI single.
Denard Span added a two-run single in the seventh for San Francisco, and Buster Posey had four hits.
The Giants gained a game on the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, who are ahead by four after losing at Arizona.
San Francisco also moved a game in front of the idle New York Mets and two up on the Cardinals in the chase for the two NL wild cards. St. Louis opened a 10-game road trip, its last of 2016.
“This is an important time for us. I’m not trying to downplay the game, but we do have time left,” Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said. “We have plenty of time left to make this thing happen.”
Cueto struck out seven and walked one in his fifth complete game, tying Chris Sale of the White Sox for most in the majors. Cueto threw 105 pitches in a game that was done in 2 hours, 33 minutes.
He outdueled Wainwright (11-9), and the San Francisco lineup delivered a day after the Giants were swept by the San Diego Padres in a lackluster three-game series.
Cueto allowed Randal Grichuk’s RBI single in the fourth. But with the Giants’ closer-by-committee struggles, he gave the bullpen a much-needed break.
When the pitcher showed up at 5:10 p.m. — on time with the late report — he felt as though he was late.
“You take a step back really and just reframe, refresh, regroup. It really felt good,” Pence said. “I think a lot of people had some good time away from the field and come in, get back together, feeling good.”
This marked the fourth regular-season matchup between Cueto and Wainwright dating to the San Francisco right-hander’s time in the NL Central with Cincinnati. Cueto beat Wainwright for the second time this season after a June 3 win.
Span was dropped to eighth in the order in an effort to get his bat going.
Wainwright intentionally walked Span in the fourth with runners on second and third to bring up Cueto, who hit sacrifice fly for the go-ahead run.
Former Giants catcher and current Cardinals manager Mike Matheny recognized the crisp air and was reminded of all the playoff series St. Louis has played in recent years at AT&T Park. The Giants beat the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series in 2012 and ’14, going on to win the World Series each time.
“It hasn’t worked out real well a lot of times for us here, so we’d like to change that part of it,” Matheny said. “It just seems like that postseason feel because of the excitement.”
BOCHY’S HEART WALK
Bochy will help kick off the American Heart Association’s “Heart Walk” on Friday afternoon, with his portion being a short jaunt from near the iconic Ferry Building to the ballpark.
Giants executive and ticket chief Russ Stanley, who had quintuple bypass surgery in April, will walk with Bochy in honor of another colleague — Raul Rodriguez — who died this year of heart disease.
Cardinals: SS Aledmys Diaz was out of the lineup. He came off the disabled list Sunday after he had been out since July 31 with a broken right thumb. “We had to watch how he responded the first two games and you could tell his hand was fine, it’s just the rest of his body was not quite in that consistent game-playing shape yet,” Matheny said, saying Diaz will be re-evaluated before Friday’s game. … RHP Trevor Rosenthal was activated from the 15-day disabled list. He had been sidelined since July 26 with inflammation in his pitching shoulder, that after losing his job as closer in late June. … RHP Alex Reyes is set to start Sunday, replacing Jaime Garcia as he moves to the bullpen.
Giants: 3B Eduardo Nunez returned to the lineup after missing three games with tightness in his back.
Cardinals: RHP Luke Weaver (1-2, 3.48 ERA) looks for his first win in four starts since beating Oakland on Aug. 26.
Giants: LHP Matt Moore (3-4, 4.05) will face the Cardinals for the first time in his career. He is looking to win for the fourth time in five starts as he makes his ninth start since joining San Francisco in a trade with Tampa Bay.