threw his first career no-hitter and continued his improved pitching in July. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
It wasn't exactly vintage Tim Lincecum. His fastball was still sitting down around 91 miles per hour, and he hit 100 pitches in the sixth inning, but Saturday night, Lincecum had complete mastery of his pitches and the Padres. Mixing a wicked curve, sharp two-seamer, an 80 MPH slider, and a devastating changeup, Lincecum kept the Padres guessing all night. The two-time Cy Young Award winner struck out 13 and got a career-high 29 swings and misses as he threw the first no-hitter in Petco Park history, and it only took him 148 pitches to do it.
Lincecum's pitch count added extra drama to a night that initially looked like it might have none. The Giants took an early 1-0 lead on Padres starter Edinson Volquez and exploded for seven more runs in the fourth and fifth innings combined. That eight-run lead proved crucial, however, as it allowed Giants manager Bruce Bochy to give Lincecum every opportunity to complete his first career no-hitter.
Lincecum allowed a couple of baserunners early in the game. He walked Chase Headley, the third batter he faced on the night, and hit Jedd Gyorko with a pitch in the second. However, he followed that one-out HBP with six straight strikeouts, taking him into the fifth inning. In the sixth, he walked Everth Cabrera with one out. After a wild pitch and another walk to Headley, Lincecum found himself with runners on the corners and his pitch count rising quickly. Carlos Quentin then squared up a 1-2 fastball, but he hit it right at shortstop Brandon Crawford, who caught the ball easily with a slight leap for the third out.
At that point, Lincecum still had his no-hitter intact, but he also had thrown 103 pitches. His previous high this season was 114, and he'd not thrown 120 or more since May 15 of last year.
Letting him pitch the seventh inning was a given, and Lincecum made quick work of it, striking out Yonder Alonso, getting Gyorko to fly out on two pitches, and getting pinch-hitter Jesus Guzman via an outstanding play by Pablo Sandoval, whose fielding was one of the key components of Lincecum's historic night.
Now, he was at 114 pitches. He'd thrown 127 or more three times in 2011, and his career high, set way back in 2008, was 138. So when Brandon Crawford made the third out of the top of the eighth, Lincecum was out on deck, and he was back on the mound in the bottom of the inning.
Again, he started things with a strikeout, then got the second out quickly, just two pitches this time on another grounder to third, on which Sandoval made a nice play to his right. He started Cabrera off with a strike, but then he lost him for a two-out walk. Lincecum was now at 125 piches, but also just four outs from a no-hitter. He stayed in. He got ahead of Alexi Amarista, his fastball now topping out at 89 MPH. The fatigue seemed to be showing. Amarista hooked a flare just beyond no-man's land in shallow right field. Surely this was how this was going to end, but then Hunter Pence, who had led off the top of the eighth with a home run, did this:
Three outs to go, 131 pitches in.
Lincecum hit for himself in the top of the ninth and flied out on the first pitch. He was quickly back out on the mound for the bottom of the inning. For the seventh straight inning, he got the first out on a strikeout, getting Headley to swing through a nasty two-seamer. Adrenaline was triumphing fatigue as his fastball got back up to 91 against Carlos Quentin, who flied out to left.
Linecum was now at 142 pitches. No pitcher had thrown 140-plus since Edwin Jackson threw 149 while no-hitting the Rays (and walking eight of them) back on June 25, 2010. Last year, no pitcher threw more than the 134 it took Johan Santana to no-hit the Cardinals. Bochy and Lincecum were all-in.
Maybe it was because they both know that Lincecum's days with the Giants are numbered given his impending free agency and the decline in his performance over the last year and a half. With the Giants sinking in the standings and Lincecum unable to string more than two quality starts together since early September of last year, this performance was as likely to have been a farewell as a rebirth, so why not throw out the pitch count and see what happens.
What happened was that Alonso swung through a pair of sliders, took two more pitches to even the count, fouled off another, then lifted an easy fly ball to left center.
Lincecum will now get an extended break thanks to the All-Star Game, which for the second time in as many years, he won't be attending. The Giants can set their rotation after the break so that Lincecum doesn't have to pitch until July 23, giving him nine days rest after that 148-pitch outing. Maybe when he comes back, Lincecum can build on his performance from Saturday night. Maybe he'll go right back to being the inconsistent and confounding pitcher he has been since the start of 2012. Whatever happens, Tim Lincecum has given baseball, and Giants fans especially, about all they ever could have asked for, and vice versa.