Matt Cain had heard all about this Tim Lincecum wunderkind, who, with only eight minor league games under his small belt, arrived at the Giants' 2007 spring training camp with the kind of word-of-mouth buzz befitting a blockbuster movie. A talented righthander himself, Cain had just finished his first full major league season and wasn't buying the buzz. "I'm thinking, They hype this guy way too much," Cain recalls. "He's coming here throwing 97, 98 effortlessly, punching tickets.... No way he's that good." ¬∂ It would take a few minutes for Cain to become a believer, to understand that a rare window of opportunity could be opening for San Francisco. Just playing catch, Lincecum amazed Cain with the velocity and life in his arm. "I'm like, O.K., this guy throws cheese," Cain says.
This is an article from the Aug. 31, 2009 issue
Cain returned fire. Soon the two of them were whipping fastballs at each other, from the lithe Seattle-area hipster (Lincecum) to the broad-shouldered brick house from Alabama by way of Tennessee (Cain). Whatever their differences, the baseball connected them, like a taut lifeline between two climbers. It was obvious to pitching coach Dave Righetti what was going on: The two of them, as Cain says, were "just burning each other out. It was nonstop."
"O.K.," Righetti told them, "you guys aren't allowed to play catch anymore."
So began the making of Lincecain: one of the best young pitching tandems since the Dead Ball era, two hypercompetitive dudes born four months apart who are so good they could drag one of the worst offensive teams not only into the postseason but also, with the premium October places on power arms, deep into it. Lincecum and Cain can't even take batting practice without seeing who gets the most hits. And playing catch? When Righetti looks the other way, they're out to inflict pain.
"Obviously we're not trying to kill each other like maybe we did the first year playing catch," Cain says. "But I'm trying to throw him a nasty changeup to jam his thumb, and he's trying to do the same to me."
"There's a spot right here," says Lincecum, sticking his left elbow out and holding his palm in front of the left side of his abdomen, "where I'm trying to get him. The chicken wing."
Lincecain is the primary reason—well, just about the only reason—that the otherwise gentle Giants are wild-card contenders. San Francisco was 33--18 at week's end when Lincecum or Cain started, 34--39 behind anybody else. Lincecum and Cain bring an unyielding, old-school determination to the mound, making them perfect fits for the rare organization not bound by pitch counts. Through Sunday, Cain had thrown at least 110 pitches in a game 39 times since 2007 and Lincecum 38 times, ranking them first and second in the National League.
"They're the best one-two punch in baseball, without a doubt," Mets rightfielder Jeff Francoeur says. "I know there are other good ones, like CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, but these guys are so good, and they go into the seventh, eighth, ninth inning every time they go out there.
"They're the one team everybody fears in the playoffs. You know you can't win a series without beating one of them. With those two guys, the Giants in the postseason look like the 2001 Diamondbacks with Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson."
But here's the big difference: While Schilling and Johnson were well into their 30s in '01, Lincecum turned 25 in June and Cain gets there in October. That the Giants could have two pitchers this young throwing this well is the historical equivalent of the same person hitting the lottery twice. At week's end Lincecum and Cain both had ERAs of 2.43. Since 1920 only two teams have had two 25-and-under starters with ERAs below 2.50, and both were from 1968, famously known as the Year of the Pitcher for its meager run totals: the Mets (Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman) and the A's (Jim Nash and Blue Moon Odom).
Lincecum and Cain have to pitch like it's 1968 because the Giants are giving them '68-level run support. Since Cain debuted in 2005, San Francisco has ranked 15th, 10th, 15th, 15th and, at week's end, 14th in the NL in scoring. The two have thrown every pitch of their big league careers with the slimmest margin for error. "I don't think it's stressful at all," says Lincecum, who was 27--3 through Sunday when the Giants scored more than three runs, 20--0 when they gave him more than four. "The lack of run support helps you become a better pitcher. You can't go out there and cruise every game. Every run is crucial."
Back in that 2007 spring training camp, Lincecum was such a sensation that Cain and other Giants pitchers would stop what they were doing to check out his bullpen sessions. "We didn't want anybody to notice we were watching," Cain says. "It was like, This kid is dirty! And that's when he was just fastball, breaking ball. We'd think, How is anybody going to hit that? Now you watch him throw that split-changeup thing, and it's unfair."
Since getting to the big leagues, Lincecum has developed a change with a modified split-finger grip that has become his premier strikeout pitch, just ahead of his other weapons, a mid-90s fastball and a sweeping curve. The changeup dives like a splitter, but by changing his finger pressure on the ball—rather than the angle of his wrist or how it comes out of his hand, which can be giveaways to hitters—Lincecum can make it dart left or right too. "A little bit will do a lot," he says.
This season Lincecum has pitched even better than he did last year, when he won the Cy Young. He has cut his walks by 25%, allowed fewer base runners and fewer home runs per nine innings, and completed at least eight innings more times already (10) than he did in all of 2008 (seven).
"Six and dive and get the win?" Lincecum says, mocking the typical modern starter. "No. I want to go deep into games and eat up innings. [Catcher] Bengie [Molina] said it the other day, and I think it's a true statement: I kind of smell it. It's that smell you get late in the game where you go, Hey, we're getting closer to a win and it's time to buckle down."
"Our biggest thing is to see who can throw more innings," says Cain, who was sixth in the NL at week's end with 170 1/3, behind Lincecum (a league-leading 1851/3). "If he goes seven, I'm going at least seven. You're not taking me out until I go at least as long as Tim. That fuels it, really. You're finding different ways to keep yourself in the game longer. And if you're in there seven, eight innings, you're doing something right."
Until this year Cain was best-known for his lack of run support. He lost six consecutive decisions in 2007, during which the Giants scored a total of five runs while he was in the game. Cain's career winning percentage of .472 is freakishly low for someone with a 3.47 ERA. Indeed, it's the third-worst among pitchers whose careers started after the end of World War II and who had an ERA better than 3.50 in at least 125 starts. Among active pitchers with such a low ERA and 125 starts, nobody comes close to Cain's buzzard's luck; Jake Peavy's .575 is the next-worst winning percentage.
Rather than complain about the lack of runs, Cain said he has used the experience of pitching in close games to improve. "I had situations where I probably could have given up no runs or fewer runs and still had the lead," Cain says. "So I found myself trying to remember, What was that situation? Maybe we were tied 2--2, and I gave up that third run. I try to think of those situations where I lost those close games and try not to let it happen again. It means staying focused toward the end."
Cain credited spring training chats with his new teammate Johnson for his improved focus in key spots. Through Sunday, Cain had held batters to a .158 batting average with runners on, well below his previous best (.245). Like Lincecum, he has also cut his walk rate to a career low and is throwing more curveballs and changeups. He has learned to deliver variations of his change, for instance, throwing it straighter when he needs a strike or slower to exploit a hitter's nerves in tight spots.
"What makes him so tough is he can throw his off-speed stuff for strikes at any time," Francoeur says. "He threw me, David Wright and Gary Sheffield curveballs for first-pitch strikes. For a guy who's still a power pitcher, that's a big advantage."
These are anxious times for the Giants. Even with Lincecain, the organization hasn't reached the playoffs since 2003 and has suffered through four straight losing seasons for only the second time since it moved to San Francisco in 1958. As Lincecum and Cain get even better, the pressure mounts for the Giants to make the most of such rare assets.
"I know what I see," says general manager Brian Sabean. "Timmy is a tough s.o.b. who loves to compete, who lives for the one-on-one battles. And Matt is the same way. It's crazy that both know at this young age what is expected of them, and they know it's a lot. And yet there is no fear of failure."
Since the day they first played catch, Lincecum and Cain have grown closer while learning to appreciate their differences. Lincecum is the one with the long curtain of black hair; Cain the one with the close-cropped blond hair. Cain is the one chilling in his Ford F-250 diesel pickup, and Lincecum the one whose joyride is a Mercedes CLK. ("I've heard all the jokes. 'Are you going to give your dad his car back?' Because it looks like one of those dad cars," he says.) Lincecum wears his uniform pants baggy like pajamas; Cain prefers the old-school look of high socks. Cain hasn't updated his iPod in ages, while Lincecum, Cain says, "has stuff that's not even out till next year." Cain is 6'3" and built like a linebacker, while Lincecum, at 5'10", is the all-around athlete who is as nimble as a gymnast.
Lincecum recently picked up a golf club for the first time in two years—and shot 81. But he doesn't plan to play again anytime soon. "It might screw up my swing," he says, "and I can't have that. I have to beat Cainer in hits."
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