Baggs: 'You're seeing a guy with a lot more confidence right now'
Tim Lincecum threw 148 pitches, no hitting the Padres in a 9-0 Giants victory on Saturday. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
SAN DIEGO – Tim Lincecum accomplished so much so fast in his major league career.
If he had thrown a no-hitter as a 23-year-old rookie, or amid one of his two Cy Young seasons, it would be just another electric night in a meteorological phenomenon of a young career.
But it didn’t happen in 2007. It didn’t happen while Lincecum was splashed on magazine covers or video game cartridges or celebrated as the toast of baseball.
No, it happened on a clear Saturday night at Petco Park, when Lincecum was longer in the tooth, shorter on top, mostly forgotten on the national stage -- and maybe a bit wiser for the wear.
[REPLAY: Lincecum no-hits Padres]
It happened when he hadn’t thrown a complete game in two years and hadn’t won a road start in three months. It happened amid assumptions that he is merely subletting his place in the rotation before beginning a second career in relief. And it happened at a time when even the most ardent Lincecum fans were beginning to wonder: should management consider pawning perhaps the most beloved, accomplished, decorated pitcher in franchise history?
There are times when Lincecum’s focus has wavered, through good times and bad. This was not one of those times.
His stuff was not as firm as it once was. But it was potent as everclear, and the distillation was the purest, happiest Lincecum Day anyone could remember.
Lincecum stayed focused all the way to the 148th pitch while throwing his first career no-hitter, the 15th in franchise history and the seventh by a Giant in the club’s San Francisco era, in a 9-0 victory over the San Diego Padres.
In a moment that will be forever frozen in time, catcher Buster Posey joyously grabbed Lincecum from behind and lifted him in the air a split second after left fielder Gregor Blanco squeezed the final out. The rest of the team took turns mobbing him. Ryan Vogelsong threw a wet strike with the water bucket. The Giants didn’t literally lift Lincecum onto their shoulders. It only felt that way.
Afterwards, following a champagne dousing in the clubhouse, the room quieted and Lincecum said a few words.
Later on, as he answered questions from reporters in that rapid-fire pace of his, he couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said.
“I was pretty much speechless because I don’t really know where to be right now in my head,” said Lincecum, who walked four and hit a batter. “Just, `Thank you for the plays, for the big offensive output we had, and just not lacking that excitement or energy throughout the game,’ which has kind of been a plague with us at times.
“I don’t think right now I really have a whole idea of what just happened. I’m just kind of pinching myself. … I’m just kind of coming down and I don’t really know where to be emotionally.”
Lincecum had never occupied this space before. He’d taken two no-hit bids into the seventh inning, but had never recorded the second out. Even when he nudged past that point against the Padres, there were obstacles. He passed the 100-pitch mark in the sixth inning, when Carlos Quentin lined out to shortstop Brandon Crawford.
The bullpen began to get busy during that inning. One hit at any time would’ve ended Lincecum’s night.
But Pablo Sandoval went down the line to glove Jesus Guzman’s hard grounder to end the seventh. And Hunter Pence swooped in like a pterodactyl in the grass to make a diving catch of Alexi Amarista’s sinking line drive to end the eighth.
The hit never came. So Giants manager Bruce Bochy never made it to the top step. He paced plenty, though. Lincecum threw the most pitches by a big leaguer since the Diamondbacks let Edwin Jackson throw 149 in his no-hitter in 2009. It was the most pitches thrown by a Giant since Vida Blue threw 153 in July, 1973.
“He wouldn’t have talked to me the rest of the year if I’d have taken him out,” Bochy said. “I was begging he didn’t get to 150. But you know, he wasn’t putting a lot of effort into his pitches.”
Bochy and catcher Buster Posey saw the same thing: Lincecum kept getting stronger, his delivery kept getting better and he wasn’t trying to force his pitches to their spots. He was letting them snap and dance on their own. He was doing what only a freak can do.
“He just had that `eye of the tiger’ look,” Bochy said.
No, Lincecum hadn’t thrown a complete game since 2011. He hadn’t won a road start since April 3 at Dodger Stadium. But anyone who watched his last handful of starts could notice a pitcher who was using his curveball more, changing eye levels and doing more mixing than a blender in Cancun.
He struck out 11 in his last outing against the Mets. He struck out 13 Padres – his most since 2009.
By the time he’d passed through the Padres lineup a second time, every single hitter except Quentin had struck out – a sign that nobody was getting comfortable in the box. He struck out six consecutive from the second through the fourth innings, matching the longest streak of his career.
Even at the height of his powers, Lincecum never generated more than the 26 swings and misses he did Saturday night. Nine came on sliders, six on fastballs, six on changeups and five on curves. There wasn’t a pitch the Padres could key on, or eliminate – or square up.
A few starts ago, after he gave up a career-high 10 hits at Dodger Stadium, Lincecum lamented not making better two-strike pitches. He vowed to adjust.
“I don’t think they were able to pattern him at all,” Posey said. “He was pretty aggressive in the zone and he let his pitches work, but he also knew when to expand at the right times. That was a big part of it. Just thinking back, I blocked a lot of the two-strike pitches. It’s not like he was leaving much in the zone.
“It’s a concentration and a focus that he’s really committed to.”
And confidence. It once pooled out of Lincecum’s every pore. It flowed again Saturday night.
“I’m evolving as a pitcher,” he said. “I guess that’s the word you can use. I’m not necessarily throwing fastball-split like I used to. I’m learning how to pitch with what I’ve got. That might mean more changeups or sliders that day or curveballs.
“I think I’ve got to get back to trusting what I have that day and that’s been kind of a turning point to getting out of these bad innings. That’s the key. It’s a real mental, mental game.”
And sometimes, its rewards are rich beyond measure.