By Wendy Thurm
SAN FRANCISCO -- The forecast was for a cloudy and breezy day, and with the San Francisco Giants in a two-week slump, it wasn't easy finding someone to go to Wednesday afternoon's game with me. This friend had too much work. That one had a sick kid. Another had tickets for Thursday's game and didn't want to go the ballpark two days in a row. On the fourth try, a yes, and the plans were set.
Tim Lincecum was on the mound for the Giants. For years, that fact alone would generate overflow crowds and an electric atmosphere at AT&T Park. The wonky delivery. The rubber-band flexibility. The long hair. The laid back attitude. The two Cy Young Awards and World Series championships. Lincecum was a San Francisco icon like few others. And when he was on the mound, more often than not, it meant a win for the Giants.
Then, in 2012, Lincecum lost a few miles per hour off his fastball and struggled with command. The once unhittable combination of a 95 mph fastball followed by an 83 mph changeup disappeared. His strikeout rate fell. His walk rate rose. The hits and runs piled up. A 5.18 ERA in 2012 was followed by a 4.37 ERA in 2013. The elite Lincecum was gone and likely never coming back.
Still, when Lincecum became a free agent at the end of the 2013 season, the Giants wanted him back, and wasted no time in making that happen. San Francisco gave Lincecum a two-year deal worth $35 million. Many writers and analysts groaned -- including me. It seemed like a vast overpay for a starting pitcher with diminishing velocity, lack of command and hittable stuff, especially one approaching his 30th birthday.
But the $35 million wasn't just for Lincecum's expected future performance. It was also for the sellout crowds every time he climbed on the mound at AT&T Park. It was for those moments of brilliance you could see every so often, still. The city, the team, the fans -- they've had a love affair with Lincecum. The Giants simply weren't ready to let that fade away.
On Wednesday afternoon, Lincecum stoked the flames of desire -- again.
With the Giants clinging to a 1-0 lead over the San Diego Padres, Lincecum led off the bottom of the third inning with an infield hit that handcuffed second baseman Alexi Amarista. A lucky break for Lincecum, a career .169 hitter, but a big shot in the arm for the Giants, who struggled to score runs in the first two games of the series. Buster Posey's two-out single sent Lincecum to third and Pablo Sandoval's double knocked him for the Giants' second run of the game.
After the Padres batted in the top of the fifth, I turned to my friend and said, "This may not turn into anything special, but notice that Lincecum hasn't allowed a hit yet." She chuckled and then told me the story of how she was at AT&T Park for Matt Cain's perfect game in 2012, and how she hadn't noticed that Cain hadn't allowed a hit or a walk when she started receiving texts from friends and family to "Pay attention" and "Keep her ticket stub." So my friend, who attends just a few games each season, did just that. She did the same today.
I don't believe in no-hitter jinxes, but I thought this was a pretty good omen.
No hits in the sixth. No hits in the seventh.
After six innings, it's real. The crowd cheers on every pitch and holds its collective breath on every ball off the bat. When the half inning is over, you find yourself high-fiving everyone within an arm's length of your seat.
After seven, the tension is palpable.
Lincecum came to bat in the bottom of the seventh, with the score still 2-0. "I hope he stands there and takes three strikes. Get him into the dugout," I said. But no. On a 1-1 count, Lincecum stroked a fastball into left field for a leadoff single. Then things got weird. The Padres didn't want Lincecum in the dugout. They wanted him standing on the bases for as long as possible. After Hunter Pence hit a one-out single that sent Lincecum to second, the Padres changed pitchers. Seven minutes after his leadoff single, Lincecum was still standing on second base. When Posey hit a booming double off the center field wall, Lincecum lightly jogged home, with Pence close on his heels. 4-0 Giants. Another pitching change.
It was close to 25 minutes between Lincecum's last pitch of the seventh inning and first pitch of the eighth and that seemed like an awfully long time for 30-year old pitcher on a cool, breezy day.
Tim Lincecum isn't like most pitchers, though. He never has been.
Three quick outs in the eighth on just ten pitches. Whatever the Padres may have done with mess with Lincecum's rhythm, it didn't work. But they weren't done trying.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Lincecum approached the batter's box to thunderous applause. "Just stand there," I said. "Take the strikeout and get back in the dugout." He stood there alright, and took four consecutive balls. The slow jog to the first base. When Gregor Blanco hit a grounder to the shortstop, Lincecum barely moved toward second. An out. Good. Another pitching change. And finally, the ninth.
The last three outs were a blur, as these things tend to be when you're in a frenzied crowd. You want time to slow down, so you can savor every second, but you want it to speed up so you can breathe again.
Tim Lincecum threw his second career no-hitter, both against the Padres. Both within a year of each other. He also hit two singles, walked once and scored two runs. In the last twenty-five years, no other National League pitcher has reached base more than twice while throwing a no-hitter.
An unusual day indeed.
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Wendy Thurm is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Bay Area Sports Guy. She has also written for ESPN.com, SBNation, The Score and the Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.