I’ve used this phrase before, but considering the occasion, I find it highly appropriate to use it again:
Where the hell have you been, Timmy Lincecum?
Like the enigmatic Joe Gould from 2004’s Cinderella Man, as he saw underdog Jimmy Braddock take down his heavily-favored opponent, many Giants fans probably had the same sentiments as they watched last night’s performance by a pitcher who had been struggling all season, but shown glimpses of his Cy Young form.
On the 13-month anniversary of fellow pitcher Matt Cain’s perfect game performance against the Houston Astros, Lincecum (5-9) shrugged off a six-game stretch without a victory – a span that saw him give up no less than four hits and two earned runs per game – and mowed down the San Diego Padres in a memorable 9-0 victory. En route to MLB history, Lincecum recorded 13 strikeouts on a career-high 148 pitches, including an impressive six K’s in a row.
The Freak didn’t run the show on his own – as with all no-hit performances, he needed a little help from his defense. Two memorable defensive plays came from the gloves of 3B Pablo Sandoval, backhanding a potential double from the third base line to throw out Jesus Guzman to end the 7th, and RF Hunter Pence, who charged near center field to rob a sure hit from CF Alexi Amarista in the 8th. Pence had a decent night behind the plate, as well, contributing 5 RBIs, including a three-run home run in the fifth.
The spotlight, however, was on Lincecum, who showed fans and critics alike that he still had the stuff that made him one of the most feared pitchers in recent memory. While his fastballs had “slowed” to an average of 91 mph, he had stellar control of his pitching arsenal: a curveball that teased up in the strike zone, only to dip for swinging hitters begging for contact; a “split-change” that acted like a splitter but read on the gun like a change-up; all the while, with the same erratic wind-up that had fooled opposing hitters for the past six seasons. It seemed everything was working for Big Time Timmy Jim, from pitch number 1 to pitch number 148 – with each devastating throw not showing any sign of fatigue, or any sign of a letdown.
With the concluding flyout to Gregor Blanco, Lincecum pumped his fist and smiled, almost matter-of-factly, as he was hugged from behind by C Buster Posey, who contributed to the Giants’ offensive production with three hits and three runs. Whether it was a signal of relief, finally pitching to his high expectations, or elation, that his five-week exodus from the winner’s circle was over, one thing was clear – Lincecum was, at least for this night in mid-July, back to form.
Now, two questions remain – can he keep it up after the All-Star Break, and, if he does, what does it mean to his impending free-agent status this coming offseason? After all, he comes off the Giants’ books at the end of 2013, and had he continued a downward spiral into the twilight weeks of September, it would have been easier to cut ties and move forward with a rotation featuring Madison Bumgarner, Cain, and newcomers like Chad Gaudin. Now, with a performance like last night’s under his belt, it could propel Lincecum’s confidence – and the Giants’ overall record – as the season goes on. If they can bounce back for a return appearance to defend their World Series crown, and the Freak becomes a big part of their turnaround, San Francisco will have to think long and hard about their next move.
In any case, it’s hard not to feel good about a historic performance by a written-off old pro. Whether a seemingly washed-up boxer on a Cinderella run, or a 29-year-old fireballer many already thought was washed up who could potentially go on a Cinderella run of his own, it always feels like something special when talent and potential meet.
For Lincecum, in a season of struggle, that’s exactly what happened.