Tim Lincecum’s career is far from over and has been memorable from the moment he was picked in the first round. But two Cy Young awards and two World Series rings aside, the one thing The Freak had never done, not at any point during his salad days, was throw a no-hitter. Until now, until Saturday night.
Diving into the lore and gore of no-hitters past and present, it’s fun to note that Lincecum whiffed 13 on the 13th. But how freaky is this: Doug Kern of ESPN Stats & Info was the first to note that this was the Giants’ first no-hitter since Matt Cain’s perfecto on June 13, 2012 against the hapless Houston Astros -- exactly 13 months ago. Since the Padres were added as an expansion team in 1969, Saturday's was also the 113th nine-inning no-hitter (individual or combined).
Freaky symmetry or random assemblage of factoids? Maybe one, maybe both. But if you’re a baseball fan, you know that numbers play a big part of how we talk about the game; math is one of the languages we use to describe who did what and how well. When you run into little coincidences like that, I’d suggest that’s just the way the game and a box score give us a bit of poetry, as well as prose.
But what’s more poetic is that Lincecum had to wait to enjoy achieving his first no-hitter until now, in what more than a few folks were already naming the nadir of his career. There have been calls from fans, statheads, analysts and shock jocks alike to move him to the bullpen to stay, all remembering Lincecum’s struggles last season as a starter, as well as his heroics last October as a postseason long reliever.
But recency aside, this is an argument that goes back to the dawn of Lincecum’s career -- when some scouts felt he could be the new Mike Marshall, a workhorse reliever capable of throwing 150-plus innings out of the pen -- and it’s an argument that reflects Lincecum’s unique talent. No one player has done as much to kill the “short righties can’t dominate as starters” label; no other player could.
The marvel of Tim Lincecum’s gifts is that while he might be considered the physical opposite of lanky lefty Randy Johnson, much like the Big Unit he’s had to combat the exact opposite of expectations -- the unknown. Lincecum’s career was already unlike anything we’d ever seen before, so we don’t know what comes next, not really.
It took Lincecum 148 pitches to throw his no-hitter, which no doubt has a few pitch-count bean counters spazzing out. I’ll admit, it’s clearly suboptimal and something that ignores the sabermetric warning label “thou shalt not go beyond 120 pitches.” (Or 100; there’s a lot of disagreement about sabermetric canon.) But it’s also Lincecum, the guy who owns the arm that used to routinely throw more than 120 pitches in his starts in college -- and it didn’t fall off. What’s supposed to come next for a talent like that? We don’t know.
On this night, Lincecum reminded everyone that no former great should be considered done at 29, no matter how epic his past body of work already was and no matter how obvious the instance of last October’s relief work might be to inform analysis. The value of a top-shelf starting pitcher is considerably greater than a high-end reliever.
So, beyond crediting the man himself for his night of magic, credit the Giants for having the wisdom of taking the good with the bad, rather than freaking out about The Freak. If he fully figures out what to do with the gifts he still has, as well as those that have changed with age, the Giants’ investment of time will be repaid, even if they’ve had to pay with more than a few beatings in the meantime. Lincecum isn’t the first great pitcher to have a midcareer hiccup (I always think of Dave Stieb, but David Cone works, too); he won’t be the last. Not every struggling starter needs to be chucked into the bullpen.
And credit, as well, the Giants on the field, because a no-hitter always owes something to the defenders to make it happen. The most memorable play in the field was Hunter Pence’s tumbling two-out dive to grab a sinking flare off the bat of utility man Alexi Amarista, squelching Amarista’s bid to become the latest mystery man to take his team off the no-hitter hook.
So the deed is done. What does come next for Tim Lincecum? I don’t know, but whatever Tim Lincecum does, it will be worth watching. Just don’t freak out about it.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.