Next April, the San Francisco Giants will take the field somewhere, opening the 2014 season against God knows who – maybe the Cardinals, maybe the Dodgers. Given the uncertainty of his contract situation, it is more than fair to admit that Tim Lincecum may not be a part of that Opening Day roster.
But in the 60 some odd games til then, Lincecum remains an vitally part of this one; and on Saturday, he added another highlight to a spectacular – if uneven – career wearing the black and orange, hurling his first career no hitter against a hapless San Diego Padre team.
Carlos Quentin, Chase Headley – it didn’t matter.
Not on this night, when nobody could land even a dribbler against Terrific Tim, who had his entire arsenal working. The curveball and changeups that left his right hand darted wickedly, set up by a well-spotted fastball that was just fast enough. Over the last year and a half, most of Lincecum’s starts had been held back by one thing or another in that group. Batters not biting on the change, heaters not going for strikes, and more often than not, Lincecum would roll up a high pitch count that knocked him out of games early.
Not on this night.
Not on this night.
And though the return of – or continuation, considering he struck out 11 in his last start – his grade-A stuff was responsible for much of his batter baffling, Lincecum still needed a some luck on his side, too. All no-hitters do. Luckily, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval were only too happy to help – the former dove to snatch a fly ball right off the grass in the bottom of the 8th, and the latter, weight challenged as he might be, managed a strong throw after reaching backhand for a grounder, throwing out Jesus Guzman.
It was the Freak in rare form, too rarely seen post 2011.
With Lincecum throwing as well as he was, Bruce Bochy said afterwards that he never had a thought of removing his #3 starter, and, true to his word, left him in to throw an astounding 147 pitches. The All-Star Break should mitigate some of the aftereffects of that decision, but there is some legitimate room for worry. In recent years, Johan Santana and Edwin Jackson have both gone above recommended pitch limits to chase history, and in doing so, experienced sharp dropoffs the rest of the season. Certainly, Lincecum is neither Santana nor Jackson and has never seriously been injured at all, but he is not among good company in this case.
If anything, Lincecum’s health is even more crucial than usual, at a time when the Giants are fighting to remain in playoff contention. Short on capable starters of any kind, the San Francisco simply cannot afford any other pitching injuries, and Bochy risked a future one by letting Lincecum go as long as he did – even if the desired result was achieved. Madison Bumgarner has been stellar as staff ace this year, but support behind him has been iffy at best – and any successful run to the playoffs will depend on the emergence of a second starter capable of following after. With his quiet resurgence this month, it is clear that Lincecum stands the best chance of being that starter, and the Giants should be hopeful that the 147 pitches he threw Saturday has done nothing to change that.
All in all, it was only the latest chapter in Curious Case of Tim Lincecum, a tale as familiar to Giants fans by now as it is unique. No one in the history of baseball has ever accomplished what Lincecum did his first two years, in winning two Cy Young awards, but few have ever flamed out as spectacularly as he did in 2012, either. The twists and turns of his story have been fascinating, really – its highs had us gleefully celebrating his Hall of Fame potential, its lows, incredibly frustrating. Still, you would be hardpressed to find anyone in the Bay Area who stopped rooting for the hero of this tale. Even with his struggles last year, the cheers for his playoff relief appearances were the loudest ones at AT&T Park.
And as for the next chapter? Well, that is still to come, but the plot has certainly begun to thicken. Coming into the season, it would have been a near certainty that Lincecum would not return, but suddenly, the first few months of 2013 have cracked that door open a tad. Ryan Vogelsong looks done as a major league contributor. Brian Sabean will finally – finally – get Zito off the books this offseason. But between those two and Lincecum’s upcoming free agency, the Giants would have to fill as many as three open rotation spots, with few internal or immediate replacements available. For that reason, re-signing Lincecum remains a serious option – and though I’ve been a long-time advocate of letting Timmy walk in order to spend the 22 millions in savings elsewhere, even I would admit that it has to be considered, at the right price. Helping all of this is the fact that he has never outwardly expressed any desire to leave the Bay Area, where he remains the first or second most popular player on the team.
That would certainly be the happiest possible ending, although nobody really knows what to expect from Timmy. Mystery and uncertainty has surrounded his entire career, and mystery remains after this spectacular performance against San Diego [still only his second greatest pitching performance, by the way]. We are months away from clearing up any of it.
If this year is the last of Lincecum in San Francisco, though, then the two titles he helped bring home have already cemented him as a legend, ensuring that he will never have to pay for a drink in the Bay Area again. Saturday was just a bonus, a glimpse into what he once was, and proof of what he could still be – another delightful moment in an already delightful story.