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July 15, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Lincecum Before the Storm

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
Tim Lincecum accomplished more in his first three-plus major-league seasons than most pitchers do in decade-long careers.

Back-to-back games with double-digit strikeouts on July 26 and August 1, 2008. Back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. A four-hit shutout on September 13, 2008. A two-hitter with 14 strikeouts in Game One of the 2010 National League Division Series, the first step toward the first of his two World Series rings.

But as Lincecum’s fastball velocity waned and the dominance that once came so easily became more difficult to attain, one feat proved elusive.

  • On July 9, 2009, Lincecum held the Padres hitless for six innings and then unraveled in the seventh, as San Diego collected three consecutive singles and tagged him with three runs before the end of the frame. The next day, Jonathan Sanchez did what Lincecum could not, coming within a Juan Uribe error of throwing a perfect game.
  • On April 18, 2011, with his long slump approaching and a championship ring already on his hand, Lincecum got one out closer. He kept the Rockies out of the hit column for 6 1/3 innings—at Coors Field, no less—before Carlos Gonzalez singled and scored on a Todd Helton double.

Fourteen months later, Matt Cain, who had supplanted Lincecum as the Giants’ ace, tossed a perfect game. His predecessor in the top spot of Bruce Bochy’s rotation did not complete a contest between May 21, 2011 and July 12, 2013, much less hold an opponent hitless while doing so.

Finally, in the 212th (postseason included) start of his big-league career—after watching his opposite number, Homer Bailey, do it against him in his 210th—Lincecum put an end to all of those droughts, leading the way in a 7-0 win.

The 29-year-old’s former fastball velocity did not magically return. He needed 23 pitches just to escape the first inning and 148 to go all the way. But Lincecum’s array of secondary pitches baffled a scuffling Padres lineup, and adrenaline carried him to the finish line—one that Bochy, even as the pitch count soared, dared not tell him he couldn’t cross.

With his four-seamer barely scraping 92 mph, Lincecum twirled a bevy of curveballs, sliders, and splitters at the Padres, commanding all three of his specialty pitches throughout the night. He earned 16 swings and misses on 47 splitters, 77 percent of which went for strikes. And of the 39 breaking balls he threw, only two—a fly out by Alexi Amarista and a ground out by Will Venable—were put into play.

Lincecum got ample help from Hunter Pence, who tripled and homered in the game and delivered this catch in right field to preserve the no-hitter at the end of the eighth inning, but he did much of the work himself. Thirteen of the right-hander’s 27 outs were strikeouts, 12 of them swinging, making this the second straight 10-plus K effort for Lincecum, who fanned 10 Mets on July 8. Lincecum had not notched 13 punch outs in an outing since April 6, 2011 and had not posted consecutive double-digit showings since he followed up an 11-strikeout regular-season finale with the aforementioned NLDS gem against the Braves in 2010.

The 13 strikeouts came on 29 total whiffs, a regular-season record for Lincecum, who missed 30 bats in the 14-strikeout post-season blanking of Atlanta. And five of the baker’s dozen were notched in back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back fashion, between the last of the second and the end of the third, when Lincecum needed only 17 pitches to tell Venable, Rene Rivera, Edinson Volquez, Everth Cabrera, and Amarista to grab some pine.

Despite his electric stuff and what that five-strikeout streak might suggest, efficiency never has been one of Lincecum’s strong suits. Bochy reluctantly allowed Lincecum to throw 138 pitches so that he could earn his first career shutout, also at Petco Park, nearly five years ago. And the 148 that Lincecum threw on Saturday night, as he walked four and hit one, represented the second-highest total amassed in a no-hitter since at least 1988, topped only by the 149 used by Edwin Jackson in his eight-walk no-no versus the Rays on June 25, 2010.

The no-hitter brightened a bleak patch for the Giants, who for less than 24 hours enjoyed their longest winning streak since May 10-12. It clinched the club’s first series victory since June 17-19, also against the Padres, and ensured that San Francisco would not fall any further behind in the National League West. The Giants still have not won consecutive games against a team other than San Diego since June 13-14, but they remain on the periphery of the post-season race, 6 ½ games behind the first-place Diamondbacks, who, like San Francisco, lost on Sunday.

Besides giving Giants fans, who have grown accustomed to celebrating in recent years, another night of ecstasy, the 15th no-hitter in franchise history created, in the punny words of FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi, a “giant freakin’ dilemma.” Should general manager Brian Sabean buy or sell? And if he sells, should he sell Lincecum, whose two-year, $40.5 million contract and six years of team control run out at the end of the year?

Sabean will ponder those questions over the All-Star break while Lincecum rests his arm. Barring a rash decision by the league’s longest-tenured GM, Lincecum’s bid to equal Johnny Vander Meer’s unparalleled record will come a week from today, when the Reds, Vander Meer’s team at the time of his back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, visit AT&T Park.

WYNTK will feature a recap of the All-Star Game on Wednesday and a preview of the weekend action on Friday before returning to its regular schedule next week.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article.

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