SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It's 4 a.m. on a crisp Tennessee winter morning, and while the sun is still asleep Giants pitcher Matt Cain is ready for a day with his buddies, shooting the breeze and shooting birds.

No politicians in sight.

With his strong right arm and accuracy, Cain could probably make feathers fly with a fastball, but he's armed instead with a Benelli pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun, wearing full camouflage gear instead of orange and black, and with decoys bobbing on the water, he awaits the ducks to fly.

There's one now. Boom. Lunch.

It's a newfound activity for the 21-year-old rookie, one far removed from the pressures of baseball, and that's the idea.

"In the offseason, I did some golfing and went hunting for deer but mostly ducks with friends. It's a lot of work getting up so early and doing all the stuff, but my buddies and I are into it and I can't quit," said Cain, loving the freedom and fun of the outdoors.

"We're out in the middle of nowhere, hanging," said. "It's fun, and after cleaning the ducks and cooking them with bacon, they're pretty good."

Oh yes, Cain is careful. Very careful. There are strict laws out there, and he and his pals adhere to the rules and regulations and safety requirements of the sport.

"There are all kinds of laws," said Cain. "The ducks are flying state to state, so it's federal, and game wardens have more authority than local police. They can take your truck, your guns. They can be pretty strict.

"I love doing it, and it's something I'll keep doing as long as I can.

It's mid-February now, and the young pitcher is in a different sporting environment, preparing for another day of spring workouts at Scottsdale Stadium, where once he briefly appeared as a 19-year-old, basically wondering what the heck he was doing there.

Admittedly immature as a person and pitcher then, the Giants' first pick in the 2002 draft struggled against big-league hitters and to articulate his feelings playing with the big boys.

Not any more.

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"I have changed," said Cain. "I've been around veteran guys, picked up on ways of carrying myself, and I've changed as a pitcher, too. I'm starting to understand what I need to do -- not just throw hard. I understand that a lot of it has to do with location, and that a couple of miles off the fastball and hitting spots will make a big difference."

He's also learned not to be too intense, too serious. It's a catch-22, with adrenal glands pumping overtime while trying to stay relaxed, and he fought a losing battle while with Triple-A Fresno last season until the midway point.

The prospect, knowing the baseball world was watching, tried to be perfect mechanically and concentrated to the extreme, trying to throw every pitch through the catcher's glove with needle-point accuracy and ungodly speed.

"I was trying too hard, making sure my body was a certain way every time, just being tense, too focused," Cain admitted. "My head was getting in the way of my body. At the All-Star break, those three days helped me relax. It was kind of weird, but everything felt better after that. I calmed down and that let me have fun."

Cain was 10-5 with a 4.59 ERA for the Grizzlies and fanned 176 batters, leading the Pacific Coast League and finishing seventh in the Minors. But he had a breakthrough seven games with the Giants starting in late August, as he logged a 2-1 record and 2.33 ERA, limiting opponents fo a .151 average and striking out 30 hitters over 46 1/3 innings.

Technically, Cain is still a rookie, but doing well against Major Leaguers last year locked him into the No. 4 rotation spot and upped his already strong reputation as a can't-miss star.

Yeah, well, that's nice, thinks Cain, but he doesn't listen to the hype.

"I'll try to do the same stuff I did last year, but I know I'll have to adjust," said Cain, knowing the hitters were seeing him for the first time during the stretch run. "I'll try to keep throwing well, but I have to stay even. I can't get too pumped up, but stay right in the middle and take it like it's no big deal."

Giants manager Felipe Alou is excited to see Cain in his second go-round.

"I don't think I've ever seen him throw the ball bad, including the first year he walked into camp." said Alou. "Oh yeah. He's a kid you don't want to touch, just let him pitch. He has no fear, and his 100th pitch is as good as his first pitch.

"He's a very smart kid as a pitcher, with his arm and his head. He's a challenging figure on the mound, unusual for a kid that young. You don't want to put any pressure on him."