Until Buster Posey came up from behind and bear-hugged him on the mound, Tim Lincecum wore not even a trace of a smile. He smacked his glove as he stared into the outfield and began a listless, almost perfunctory fist pump. Posey's embrace pulled him into the moment, bringing out the boyish grin that the Giants know so well but have seen so rarely of late.
As the celebration of his no-hitter continued with predictable rambunctiousness, Lincecum seemed remarkably subdued, a strange combination of dazed and composed. Throwing 148 pitches may have taken the verve out of him, or he may have been riding alternating waves of euphoria and relief.
At 29, he had gained a wondrous slice of baseball immortality, a pitcher's dream, but he had also proved something critical to his future. He can still dominate, even without the blistering fastball that won him back-to-back Cy Young awards at age 24 and 25. Lincecum threw just one pitch on Saturday night that topped 91 mph, according to MLB.com stats, a 92 mph fastball to the Padres' Chase Headley in the first inning.
Yet he struck out 13 batters. The Padres took a lot of confident cuts that called to mind a quote Lincecum uttered to USA Today early this season: "I know hitters are looking at me right now as a real nice piece of meat to eat at times.'' On Saturday night, however, the bats kept whistling through the air, their operators unable to discern his sliders from his changeups, or his curves from his uncommonly well-placed fastballs. Twenty-seven times a hitter swung and missed, a career-high for Lincecum.
For almost a year and a half now, Lincecum has scuffled with his control, not just by throwing outside the strike zone, but also by locating the ball poorly within it. Thwarted in his attempts to work the outer edge of the plate with the fastball, his off-speed pitches lacked the power to baffle. But in recent weeks, his wavering confidence started to give way to a comfortably new Lincecum, gradually transforming from The Natural to The Pro.
He has acknowledged that, relatively speaking, he coasted on pure talent through his first few years in the majors. He has even called his younger self "lazy,'' though that may be a relative term. Until August 2010, when Lincecum's strength faded for about a month, a first for him, serious conditioning drills simply had not been part of his routine.
Gifted athletes rarely want to deviate from what put them atop their sport, and Lincecum had gifts coming out of every pore. He famously walked on his hands with ease and, less famously, would casually pick up a golf club and keep up with teammates devoted to the game.
Until the no-hitter, he had not thrown a pitch in the eighth inning all year. He took an ERA of 4.68 into the game, a year after he had finished with an appalling 5.18. More and more, the bullpen appeared to be his destiny.
His repertoire, and especially his sophisticated changeup, still fit a starter's profile. But his stamina held him back. Working as a reliever in the Giants' postseason run to a Market Street parade in 2012, he could riff with abandon, and he thrived. With an entire game in front of him, a symphony to compose, he would meander, eventually pitching gibberish.
The beauty of his no-hitter -- aside from its arrival at a time when his days as a tuxedoed cover boy appeared at an end -- lay in its obscene pitch count. It may yield dreadful repercussions for his right arm very soon, but late into Saturday, the ballooning number prodded Lincecum to elevate his game, to pitch without fear or the luxury of coyness.
When he walked two batters in the 6th and reached 103 pitches, the no-hitter seemed doomed. Lincecum was on pace to throw 163 pitches, 25 more than his career high, and even that projection assumed that he wouldn't become less efficient as his energy flagged. The only question appeared to be whether he would wear down and give up a hit, or get cute and walk batters, forcing Bruce Bochy to yank him before his arm spontaneously combusted.
Bochy said later he never considered pulling Lincecum, but he didn't explain whether he arrived at that position after Lincecum's calming seventh inning, which he finished off in 11 pitches.
Lincecum knew that he couldn't toy with batters, that he had to go after the Padres and count on his fielders to help. He did it. So did his teammates, most notably third baseman Pablo Sandoval and right fielder Hunter Pence.
Lincecum got better and stronger as the game went on. His fastball stayed around 89 and 90, reaching 91 twice in the 9th, but his command turned sharper. Sweat poured off him, and his eyes looked a bit bleary, but when he went into his delivery, he became a machine -- a very fluid, loose machine. When he talked later, he said he felt ready to keep pitching even after the last out.
It has been a long time since Lincecum had a big goal in front of him and met it. He knew that. He talked calmly, almost flatly, on TV. In the clubhouse, he told reporters: "I'm just kind of coming down, and I don't really know where to be emotionally."
It's tempting to draw too much meaning from the no-hitter, whether it be that Lincecum can remain a starter for years to come or remain a Giant after this season, when he's set to be a free agent.
But Lincecum would not want to convert this night into conclusions about anything, much less whether he can become akin to what he once was. He has learned too much from the last two seasons.
The clarity he brought to the final three innings should stay with him, though, the understanding that he needn't be vintage Tim Lincecum to be ripe for something special at any moment. He should also appreciate what he gave his teammates, as well as what they gave back. They all know that the game will take them down someday, most of them before they ever reach as high as Lincecum once flew.
On Saturday, they got to share in baseball history, yes, but also in an athlete's rage against the dying light. Any player would have to savor that.
Posey's face said as much when he ran toward the mound, toward an unsuspecting Lincecum. Their relationship as a battery has become a sideshow in Lincecum's decline, as backup Hector Sanchez caught the ex-Cy Young winner too frequently for coincidence alone to explain. Posey is a methodical perfectionist with minimal emotional output. Lincecum … well, until recently, he was the long-haired character who dropped an F-bomb into an open mike after the 2010 division clincher. Media and fans have speculated that they make a bad mix.
On Saturday, they made history together and Posey's joyous embrace overtook the muted Lincecum. As he received more hugs, high-fives and eventually a water-cooler shower, Lincecum realized he hadn't properly dotted every "I." He saw his catcher walking by and shouted: "Buster, Buster." The two reached toward each other, hugged, and from their second embrace came the words: "Thank you."