ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series, as closer Brian Wilson prepared to blow away the Texas Rangers and nail down the first championship in San Francisco Giants history, Tim Lincecum sat at the far end of the dugout with teammate Barry Zito and basked in the glow of a job well-done.
There are special moments in every baseball player's career, exhilarating moments and, for a fortunate and select few athletes, there are moments of excellence so cosmic and profound that poets can't find the words to properly frame them. Lincecum isn't much for articulating his sentiments, but the look in his eyes made it clear he understood what he had just achieved deep in the heart of Texas.
"I think that's the beauty of Tim,'' Zito said. "He's just kind of oblivious. Of course he has nerves like everybody else, but when he goes out there, it's strictly business. It's baseball. It's 60 feet. It's the hitter, and his fastball and changeup and slider.
"It's baseball. But then you look at everything surrounding that little microcosm and you start to think, 'Holy crap, this is pretty special.'''
Holy crap, indeed.
At 26, Lincecum has carved out quite a legacy for himself. He has two Cy Young Awards, three All-Star Game selections and three strikeout titles in the bank. Randy Johnson urged his virtual likeness to put on a towel in a video game commercial, and Major League Baseball aired an ad featuring Lincecum and his father to remind us all precisely what it is that makes us love the game.
Now Lincecum has a transcendent night in November to add to his portfolio. With 52,045 fans, a national TV audience and hundreds of chroniclers of baseball history in attendance, he went all Jack Morris on the Rangers.
Lincecum gave up a solo home run to Nelson Cruz in the seventh inning and yielded the stage to Wilson after throwing 101 pitches, so it wasn't quite Jack Morris versus the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. But his eight innings of three-hit, 10-strikeout, lockdown ball in San Francisco's 3-1 title-clinching victory were so masterful, they earned him a special place in the hearts of Giants baseball fans and a prominent seat in the parade.
The performance had to be particularly gratifying to Lincecum, given that so much attention has been focused on his Game 5 opponent, Cliff Lee. It was similar to the buildup to Games 1 and 5 of the National League Championship Series, when Lincecum played a subordinate role to Phillies ace and resident no-hit-meister Roy Halladay.
If you think the disparity in expectations didn't motivate Lincecum just a little bit, you don't know much about the psyche of great athletes. Monday night in Arlington was Lincecum's personal "Hey, I'm not chopped liver'' statement.
"That's how guys are. When you're young, you put a thing up there and say, 'Yeah, I'll show you,''' said Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, making a motion to simulate a chip on a shoulder.
It was only fitting that Lincecum would close out the Rangers with a gem. The San Francisco staff posted a 2.45 ERA for the Series and held the Rangers to a .190 team batting average. Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero, Texas' primary run producers, were particularly ineffectual, with a combined three hits in 34 at-bats. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were superb in their only outings, and Jonathan Sanchez was the only Giants starter who gave the Rangers a sniff.
"We say that we weren't able to play Rangers baseball, and their pitching staff played a big part in that,'' said Texas outfielder David Murphy. "We were never able to get into the type of groove that we experienced all season long.''
Lincecum survived a bumpy journey on the way to his climactic night. After he stunk up the joint with an 0-5 record and a 7.82 ERA in August, the Giants told him he needed to ratchet up his conditioning. Righetti half-jokingly observed that he was nervous that Lincecum might get hurt running stairs with Cain, but there was no other way around it.
"He made a renewed commitment,'' Righetti said. "I think he just got tired of looking bad. The reason why it worked is, he thought this team was going to be good. We all felt there was something at the end of this rainbow.''
General manager Brian Sabean is also convinced that Cain's continued improvement helped divvy up the burden to Lincecum's benefit. If Lincecum was No. 1 and Cain was suddenly No. 1(a) -- and Sanchez and Bumgarner and Zito all assumed their share of the responsibility in the next three spots in the rotation -- Lincecum could simply concentrate on pitching rather than dwell on the ramifications of every outing.
"He didn't have to be the bell cow, or somebody out there carrying the flag,'' Sabean said. "I think that relaxed him and also gave the team more confidence.''
In the end, nothing beats aptitude. When Lincecum came on the scene in 2007, he threw 94-95 mph and was essentially a fastball-curveball pitcher. He added a changeup to his repertoire a couple of years back, and developed a slider about two months ago, and used both pitches to great effect in the postseason. In Monday's clincher, Lincecum threw 50 fastballs, 50 sliders and changeups, and one curveball.
Just think about that: At the All-Star break, Lincecum didn't even have a slider in his repertoire. And now, in the biggest game of his life, he threw a total of 41 sliders. According to the Pitch f/x breakdown, 29 of them were strikes, and 10 of those were swinging strikes.
"I'm sure Bengie Molina is over there saying, 'I don't remember that pitch at all,''' Zito said of Molina, who was traded from San Francisco to Texas in early July. "Now it's a huge part of what Timmy does.''
When San Francisco beat Texas 11-7 in the World Series opener, Lincecum was more about competitiveness than pitching excellence. He survived a rough start, absorbed two comebackers off the legs, and struck out only three Rangers in 5 2/3 innings. But he vowed to be better the next time out, and he was true to his word.
All the naysayers out there who are saying I couldn't do it we couldn't do it we shut them all up.
”-- Giants ace Tim Lincecum
Lincecum breezed through the Rangers' lineup on 53 pitches through four innings, then told Righetti he was getting a second wind. By that point, the Texas hitters were all swinging at the first decent pitch they saw, rather than risk falling behind and having to encounter a two-strike slider or changeup.
Long after Wilson whiffed Cruz for the final out of the game, the San Francisco players left their clubhouse champagne celebration behind and returned to the field to a chorus of "Thank you, Gi-ants!'' from the diehard fans who had stuck around. Lincecum wore a T-shirt with no sleeves and a backward cap, and looked like he should be toting a skateboard. Although he spoke mostly in platitudes, he did allow himself one moment of defiance.
"All the naysayers out there who are saying I couldn't do it we couldn't do it we shut them all up,'' Lincecum said.
How sweet does it get from here? Lincecum is now a polished pitcher at 26, and a cloudless sky is the limit.
"It's unbelievable,'' Zito said. "He has so many golden years in front of him. He's gonna stay healthy. He's got one of these crazy bodies. He's built like rubber. He's so flexible and strong, he reminds you of a gymnast. He has all the elements.''
Before his long-term future plays out, Tim Lincecum has an appointment to appear in a parade Wednesday in San Francisco. He passed the "strictly business'' part of the equation with flying colors. Now comes the fun part.