The giant middle finger Tim Lincecum extended Saturday night was to a baseball world that forgot who he was, who he can be. It was to the scouts who sneer at a fastball that's 4 mph off its peak, to the media that bemoaned his ERA ranking among the bottom quarter of starters, to the fans who believed his days of Cy Young glory were long past.
Remember, in the afterglow of his 148-pitch no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on Saturday night, who Tim Lincecum is: a 5-foot-10, 100-nothing-pound bundle of impossibility who for the entirety of his career has used skepticism and outright doubt as fuel for his greatness. This performance – 96 strikes, 52 balls, 13 strikeouts, four walks and, most important, no hits – was always in him. He just never lucked into it.
That, after all, is what a no-hitter comes down to: the amalgamation of the immense talent inherent in every big leaguer and the fortune that smiles on him on a particular night. Without Pablo Sandoval hauling his formidable frame down the third-base line and gunning out Jesus Guzman in the seventh inning, history does not exist. Without Hunter Pence robbing Alexi Amarista in the eighth inning on a pea struck to right field, Lincecum does not join the record books as the 281st no-hitter in major league history and the 15th for the San Francisco Giants.
No, Lincecum is not who he was. This is evident by the radar gun, the ERA that's 4.27 even after Saturday, the fact that All-Stars will gather in New York this week and he was not even close to being considered among them. Even two years ago such a thought would've been heresy.
In his second and third seasons, Lincecum won the National League Cy Young, and his career path mirrored that of all-time greats. His fastball and his split-change and his slider were miracles of this catawampus motion his father dreamed up and implemented, one to which Lincecum took. He was Todd Marinovich gone right, an experiment with a hypothesis – throw like this and you will succeed in spite of physical limitations – and a conclusion that bore it out.
Then came 2012. Lincecum didn't just struggle. He cratered. Whereas in past years the Giants could count on him to start Game 1 and send the opposition into fetal position, come the 2012 postseason he couldn't even crack their rotation. Though he excelled in a bullpen role, it was emasculating nevertheless. Tim Lincecum wasn't a damn reliever. No matter how good he looked in short bursts, he had spent too much time atop the mountain to descend it only to turn into Sisyphus, never getting that boulder back to the top.
Lincecum is a free agent after this season, and while Saturday's effort may single-handedly ensure interested teams he is a starter – only a handful of pitchers would even dare exceed 130 pitches, let alone sniff 150 – it reinforces the notion that he will not spend 2014 beginning his outings in the fifth or sixth or seventh innings. Even if Lincecum could thrive as a super-reliever, the sort of fireman utilized to great effect in the past, the game does not work that way. Tim Lincecum is a starter, all right? A starter who throws freaking no-hitters.
Perhaps it is easy to fall back on peripheral numbers as an indicator of who a pitcher should be, as opposed to who he is, but look at the 2011 version of Lincecum vs. 2013 Lincecum going into the no-hitter, and they're not all that different, save for one number on which most people fixate.
Fundamentally, in the vacuum that sabermetrics want to fill, Lincecum is about the same pitcher this year as he was in his last successful season. He is giving up home runs at a slightly elevated rate, and his batting average on balls in play is 46 points higher, both of which in theory account for the difference between a top-of-the-league pitcher and the incarnation who coming into Saturday looked more primed for a blow-up than a no-no.
This Giants season is a disaster, and in no small part because of Lincecum. Coming into Saturday, he was 4-9 with that ugly ERA. As much as he had tried to rid himself of last season, cutting his hair and declaring it a new year and doing everything he could to recapture a past that even though he's only 29 seemed too long ago, Lincecum never could find himself, or at least the self that threw up zeroes like he was a broken binary code.
It lurked inside of him, like it did in high school in the Seattle area where they pegged him to be an anomaly and in college at Washington where he was nothing more than a breakdown candidate and even with Giants where he wouldn't last. Lincecum has spent his career representing baseball's small counterculture, and to behold it has been glorious.
When Giants catcher Buster Posey assaulted him from behind after his 84-mph split-change induced Yonder Alonso to fly out to left field for the final out, it was a reminder of how beloved Lincecum is among his teammates. They took his struggles personally, and they still do. They remember who he was, and that's easy to dwell on because when you bear witness to true greatness – and make no mistake, Lincecum in his prime was indeed that – coming to terms with a lesser version often takes too much time for baseball people to recognize.
It's why extrapolating this with what Lincecum will be is a mistake. The scouts are right: His 90-mph fastball is a liability. And the media is right: No matter how predictive peripherals prove a player whose velocity drops like Lincecum's has necessitates a change in approach, and Lincecum has shown no signs of wanting to do so. The fans are right, too: Another Cy Young for Lincecum is unlikely.
Moments such as Saturday do offer hope, and that can be plenty. For one game at least, the Tim Lincecum everyone wants to remember returned. Gregor Blanco, the left fielder who caught the final out, handed Lincecum the final ball, and it was a kind gesture that was followed by dozens more. Everybody hugged Lincecum. Blanco. Posey. His manager, Bruce Bochy. His coaches. The clubhouse manager. Everyone was happy for Lincecum. They all should've been.
On perhaps his most brilliant night yet, they all wrapped their arms around him, thankful he reminded himself that he could indeed conjure the old Lincecum. They squeezed him tight to show their affection, and in all their arms he looked so small. Which was funny. For on Saturday, when Tim Lincecum threw his first no-hitter, never had he been bigger.
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