He's growing his hair out again. Most people haven't noticed because the unfortunate caterpillar on Tim Lincecum's upper lip steals the attention away from what's atop his head, or because the very idea of seeing an athlete through the lens of image is more football and basketball's style. It's one of the countless things that made Lincecum unique among baseball players. Everyone gravitated to how he looks because it's so ... different.
When he cut his hair during the offseason, it was part of a reinvention. The stuff that emanated from Lincecum's right arm wasn't all that different anymore, and the quality of it matters far more than the distinctiveness of his delivery and body size, so he was changing to compensate – growing and maturing, with an adult haircut instead of the long locks and a mustache because why the hell not.
Deep down, of course, Lincecum understood that no image could bely the most inimitable part of him: his experience. The doubts, the laughs, the tweaks, the sort of things that turned a 5-foot-10, 160-pound kid into an unrelenting monster, someone who when so much disappeared still could conjure his best.
And his best is better than almost everyone who ever has thrown a baseball. Two World Series rings. Two Cy Young Awards. And, after his latest unlikely performance Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco, two no-hitters, this one more brilliant than the last, as good as any game Lincecum threw in his prime.
Maybe it was against the San Diego Padres, who are threatening to break records of offensive futility that date back almost a century, and perhaps it was, like almost every other no-hitter, as much about luck as anything. And yet a no-hitter has a wonderful way of making none of that matter. If the question is whether a pitcher recorded 27 outs without allowing a hit and the answer is yes, the details are immaterial.
Because 78 times prior this season, the same miserable Padres managed to scratch out a hit. And in his 15 starts this year before Wednesday's, Lincecum allowed 87 hits in 82 2/3 innings. If a no-hitter is a miracle, two – two within one year, against the same team, from a guy whose fastball used to reach 98 mph and today sits comfortably at 90 – is a religious experience.
All these years, plenty of those who didn't understand how Lincecum did what he did wondered if some deity had indeed blessed him. And there was that. His arm speed, his flexibility, his brain – all conspired to deliver this undersized moppet who turned into the capital-F Freak before tapering into something a little less godly: an average-at-best pitcher.
Lincecum entered the game with a 5-5 record and a 4.90 ERA that ranked 84th of 92 qualified starting pitchers in baseball. His evolution was a work in progress; not only did the command of his pitches lag behind, hitters were squaring them up as well as ever. He wasn't the unlikeliest pitcher to throw a no-hitter. He wasn't in anyone's top 25, either.
For 113 pitches – 35 fewer than he used less than a year ago to no-hit the same Padres on the eve of the All-Star break – Lincecum kept San Diego off-balance with a heavy diet of off-speed pitches. He threw his slider more than his fastball, mixed in a changeup and curveball every eight pitches or so to keep San Diego honest, and rode the wonderful crowd at AT&T Park to a 4-0 victory.
Inside the dugout, Lincecum laughed, joked, fraternized the whole way. Nobody is supposed to talk with the pitcher during a no-hitter, let alone hold conversations that prompt belly laughter. Whatever. This was fun. It wasn't his first. He wasn't grinding through long at-bats. Lincecum walked one and struck out six. It was the sort of efficiency he craved when he arrived in Scottsdale, Ariz., for spring training in February.
Lincecum wanted to remember what this felt like, because he used to experience the euphoria of excellence after nearly every start. And for that, his brain needed to buy into what his arm tried to tell him for years.
"It's not all about stuff," Lincecum said. "Everyone's already known that. Those are givens. But it's really buying into that. Really buying into that out there. Knowing that I don't need to hump up on this 0-2. I need to put it in the right spot. Your mindset changes in ways of how I'm going to get this job done. Back in the day, younger, youthful, it was like, come and get it. Now it's come and get it – with a plan."
The plan can work. Lincecum showed that Wednesday. And maybe it's just an anomaly, the sort of moment he summons every now and again to remind the world that not only is he still around but eminently capable of doing something historic, which would be more than OK. He lives for those moments because they're another notch for him, another failure for detractors.
"I knew I was going to fight that my whole career," he said. "It was like, 'If he's not going to break now, he's going to break later.' It's always going to be that. Trying to prove that wrong the whole time, I stopped worrying about what I was doing out there, which was being good, I guess, competing, having success.
"You've got to get back to the focal points of why you're here and turn it into a game when you're a kid again. You take the foundation of the stuff you learned as you get older, but at the same time your mentality should be that of some young kid who's [expletive] ready to impress somebody."
Tim Lincecum is 30 now. He is rich. He is bright. He is beloved in a great city. And he lives for days like this, when he can remind himself that he is different, all right, and nothing could be more impressive.
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