Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tim Lincecum's No-Hitter

In all the years watching baseball I was never more transfixed by a game than I was last night watching Tim Lincecum pitch a no-hitter. When left fielder Gregor Blanco caught a routine fly ball for the final out, it was a pure moment of catharsis. Even the normally stoic Giants catcher Buster Posey erupted in, for him, volcanic joy as he rushed Lincecum, bear-hugged him, and lifted him off the mound. (If you’ve ever watched Posey play or give an interview, this display of emotion was as shocking as the no-hitter. Posey is about as opaque and all-business as a professional athlete can be. His most expressive gesture on the baseball field is a fist pump after hitting a meaningful home run, but even that gesture is more like a clenching of the fist as he eschews the pumping part. That’s why he’s easy to admire and respect, but hard to love, unlike Lincecum.)

What makes this no-hitter so special and dramatic is the timing. Had Lincecum thrown the no-hitter a few years ago, when he was the dominant pitcher in the National League, it would’ve been a half-expected event. He was an unlikely superhero then. A pitcher with a boyish body who could throw a fastball in the mid-90s through an ungodly contortion of his small, wiry frame generating vast amounts of torque that seemed to defy physical laws. It was like watching Jimmy Olsen displaying Superman’s powers. A number of so-called baseball experts and scouts viewed Lincecum’s mechanics with suspicion and doubt. They were convinced that he would end up injuring his arm, because of the apparent violence of his pitching motion. In an interview in, I believe, Sports Illustrated, Lincecum’s father, who taught him how to pitch, dismissed the critics, saying Lincecum’s delivery was sound. He turned out to be right. While pitchers with more traditional pitcher’s bodies and deliveries, like Roy Hallady and Stephen Strasberg, have been sidelined with injuries, Lincecum has been healthy throughout his major league career.

However, last year his mechanics broke down in a different way. He lost approximately four miles-per-hour on his fastball. His control, which was never great to begin with, abandoned him. The superhero had lost his super powers. You know what happens then in the comics. The villains pummel him. The game of baseball turned out to be like the comics for our unlikely superhero. It was sad to watch in a way, but it was also infuriating, because Lincecum didn’t do anything to help himself. There are basic responsibilities for a pitcher apart from pitching, such as fielding his position, holding runners on base, and backing up the catcher when there’s a play at the plate. Too many times Lincecum shirked these responsibilities. He could get away with it when he had dominating pitches. With average stuff, his neglect of pitcherly responsibilities made him a less than average pitcher. He was being out-pitched and out-played by plebian pitchers who learned to perform the basic skills of a pitcher in order to survive, not possessing the gifts of Lincecum of old and other elite pitchers.

Despite Lincecum’s shortcomings during this woeful stretch, it was still easy to root for him. When the television camera caught Lincecum in the dugout, you saw him cheering on his team-mates, sharing a laugh, and generally enjoying the game of baseball. It was only on the mound that Lincecum looked confused, stricken even at times. His attitude was right even when his pitching wasn’t. He was still your Everyman on the mound.

So 2013 started out a lot like 2012 for Lincecum. Same velocity on his fastball, erratic control, and losses piling up at twice the pace as wins. However, Lincecum had been more effective in his last few games. But I don’t think anyone saw a no-hit game coming. It had a magical, dramatic quality about it. One could easily believe the no-hitter was a key turning point moment like when the prone superhero gets off the floor, somehow recovers his strength and starts laying out the villains one-by-one. I’d like to believe that Timmy’s back. He’ll never get his super-powers back, but I’m hoping that he uses his diminished powers combined with newly acquired guile to be as an effective pitcher as ever. As the Giants play-off hopes fade, I’ll still be following Lincecum’s progress. Baseball is full of short stories and long narratives. I hope Lincecum’s story, in the end, is an epic.

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