In the first post season start of his young Major League career, Tim Lincecum demonstrated the ultimate measure of a great pitching performance. Turns out it’s not the just the ability to churn out 102 mile-per-hour fastballs, or consistently toss a 12 to 6 curveball, or even winning twenty games with the latest high-priced New York Yankee offensive machine behind you. Turns out it's all about adapting, adjusting, and executing.
Like Tim Lincecum did when he shutout the Atlanta Braves 1-0 Thursday night in the first game of the 2010 National League Division Series at AT&T Park.
From the first inning, in fact throughout the entire game, Lincecum’s fast ball tended to sail high across home plate, several pitches managing to soar above batter, catcher and umpire. After giving up a double to Braves lead-off hitter Omar Infante in the first inning, Tim Lincecum first went to his off-speed stuff and started to get outs. Then he eased into a pitch he started working on a just month ago: a deathly sick slider.
Lincecum adapted, adjusted, and then executed like few pitchers in the history of the game have executed. The final tally was stunning: 9 innings pitched, 2 hits, 1 walk, and 14 strikeouts. The whiffs set a new Giants franchise record for most strikeouts in a post season game (several Giants pitchers held the previous post season record of 10 punch-outs, the last being Jack Sanford in the 1962 World Series against the Yankees).
Atlanta hitters endured a frustrating evening of alternatively being fooled by Lincecum’s new slider, that tailed low and out of the strike zone, flailing at Lincecum’s fast ball, that buzzed the top of the strike zone, or simply being fooled by Lincecum’s deadly off-speed pitch, that looks like a fat fastball until the bottom falls out as it crosses home plate.
I hesitate to even mention that Atlanta hitters frequently mistook the slider for a Lincecum off-speed pitch, nicely completing the confusing nightmare stew they faced at home plate all night.
Catcher Buster Posey noted several times after the game that his pitcher’s errantly high fastball actually played into the movement of the slider and off-speed pitches. It’s almost like they planned it that way. The result of Atlanta’s futile attempts at offense were 8 fly ball outs, 4 ground outs, a line-drive out, and 14 strikeouts.
Other relevant numbers to chew on: Lincecum threw 119 pitches, and Manager Bruce Bochy later stated he had no thought of taking his ace out after 8 innings; the Atlanta offense had an amazing 31 swings and misses, which ESPN reported was a career high for Lincecum in a game, and the most for any pitcher in any game this season; FanGraphs PitchFx noted Lincecum threw his fastball 39% of the time during the game, the lowest percentage in his career.
Sure, there was a bad call at second base on Buster Posey’s steal, but last time I checked booted calls have been part of the game for 150 years. In truth, the Braves defense was atrocious, two official errors and one sloppy play at third by Infante that allowed the game’s only run. Giant’s right fielder Cody Ross, who drove in that run, refocused the spotlight where it needed to be. “That,” stated Ross, “was the best pitching performance I’ve ever seen, ever been a part of.”
Those of us fortunate to be at AT&T Park Thursday night and see this Division Series game in person will remember it for a very long time. In the midst of his first post season appearance, and throughout a tense and gut-wrenching one run game, Tim Lincecum executed and defined the measure of a truly great pitching performance.