Ever popular righty weaves magic of no-hitter when he, Giants could use it the most
By Richard Justice
Through all the ups and downs, the San Francisco Giants have stood by Tim Lincecum, and you're probably assuming this is one of those complicated relationships that people on the outside would never understand. On this, you couldn't be more wrong.
It's actually simple. The Giants love Tim Lincecum. To know Tim Lincecum is to love the guy. He's so low key and so likable, so honest, so humble, that it might be impossible to dislike him.
The Giants also love what he has meant to the franchise. This shouldn't be a make-or-break part of the decision-making process, but it shouldn't be ignored, either. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking into account why all those Giants fans wear their "Freak" T-shirts with an outline of Lincecum's flowing locks.
To fully understand this part of the story, you might have to visit AT&T Park. It's one of the coolest places to watch a baseball game, and The Freak has played a role in making it so. Here's the best part. That beautiful ballpark, that ballpark setting so splendidly on the bay, that ballpark that has become one of the places to see and be seen in San Francisco, is filled every single night.
The Giants have sold the place out for 287 consecutive regular-season games, the longest such streak in our game. And it's more than just full. It's really loud in a college-type of way. Fans there are invested in their Giants, quick to cheer, slow to boo. Lincecum is part of that, too. In a city that prides itself on being fiercely independent, The Freak could be the poster boy.
He has never been like the others. Free spirit? Yeah, that's one way to say it. Mostly, though, he just seems like a down-to-earth kid, a happy-go-lucky guy who embraces the whole experience.
Sure, sometimes the Giants may look at him and see the guy they hope he can again be rather than the guy he actually is. Love can be blind in that way. That's OK, too.
Eyebrows were raised last fall when the Giants signed Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million extension. That seemed like a little too much money for a guy who'd struggled for two years, going 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA.
He simply did not resemble the guy who'd won two Cy Young Awards, gone 62-36 and compiled a 2.81 ERA in his first four full big league seasons. Yet the Giants saw enough of Lincecum, who only turned 30 two weeks ago, down the stretch last season that they believed he'd be able to make the sort of middle-age adjustment virtually every pitcher has to make at some point.
Some of them -- for instance, Tom Seaver and, it appears, Josh Beckett -- make the adjustment brilliantly. They learn that they can't bully their way through tight spots and that they have to be precise with movement and location. Some can do it. Some can't. In the end, the Giants believed Lincecum could.
Who would doubt the Giants? Their general manager, Brian Sabean, might be the most respected in the business and didn't get those two World Series rings by doing dumb stuff. Giants manager Bruce Bochy almost certainly is headed for Cooperstown. And the franchise's top two pitching gurus -- Dave Righetti and Dick Tidrow -- are universally respected.
So if all those smart guys believe in Tim Lincecum, that says plenty about what The Freak probably is capable of. There has been no instant payoff for their faith.
In 15 starts before Wednesday afternoon, the results had been decidedly mixed. At AT&T Park, he'd been mostly solid -- 3-2 with a 3.75 ERA in nine starts. On the road, though, he has a 6.68 ERA in six starts.
Two no-no's in two years
Since 1969, only five pitchers have thrown two no-hitters over a two-year span. Nolan Ryan did it three times.
Whether it's the spacious dimensions at home, or simply the comfort level of working there, Lincecum had looked confident and aggressive. This was the Tim Lincecum the Giants thought was worth $35 million. On the road, he has been shaky.
And then on Wednesday afternoon, back at home, he tossed his second no-hitter in just over a year, beating the Padres, 4-0. Like the 148-pitch masterpiece he threw in San Diego last season, he put on a clinic.
He struck out only six (compared to 13 last year), saying, "It wasn't a stuff day. It's where I was able to put it."
Nevertheless, it was one of those games that infused the slumping Giants with hope. They began the day having lost 11 of 14, thanks mostly to a rotation that had run up a 5.85 ERA. They've spent 74 days atop the National League West, but had seen their lead shrink from 9 1/2 games to three in recent days.
Unlike that Tim Lincecum with the 95 mph heater in those early seasons, this victory was pitching in its purest form. He got 13 of his 27 outs on a slider that had wicked movement.
Here's the key. He also got six outs on changeups, six on fastballs and two on curveballs. At some point, the Padres realized that he had his entire repertoire working, and so it would be a guessing game.
He sent a message at the beginning of the game when he threw Will Venable four fastballs, then struck him out on an 83 mph changeup. Even though his fastball has trouble breaking 90 mph most of the time, it's plenty effective when mixed with all that other stuff, especially the slider that approaches home plate like a change or fastball, then breaks sharply down at the last moment.
He threw just one changeup in the third and fourth innings, but it remained an impactful pitch because he'd shown it earlier in the game. He brought it back to open the fifth, striking out Chase Headley on one. When he faced Headley again to open the eighth, he went change-curve-fastball before getting an infield grounder on another change.
To show a hitter that many pitches with an assortment of movements and locations shifts the advantage to the pitcher. As for velocity, Lincecum hit 92 mph just twice, one of those on his 108th pitch of the game, that to Yasmani Grandal in the ninth. He followed that up with an 80 mph slider that was tapped back to the mound.
And when he finished the game with a change-fastball-slider combination to get Venable to ground out to second baseman Joe Panik on his 113th pitch, Lincecum screamed, embraced his catcher, Hector Sanchez, and was mobbed by his teammates.
It was the sweetest of days for the Giants. Lincecum showed he's still capable of pitching at a high level, and for a franchise trying to win the World Series for the third time in five years, it was a day to believe anything is possible.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.