In section 317 of AT&T Park on Thursday, in my Zack Greinke Brewers shirsey, I joined 41,219 fans in a standing ovation for Tim Lincecum as he completed an eight-inning, one-hit shutout start against my Milwaukee Brewers. How could you not? Lincecum struck out eight, induced an absurd 18 swinging strikes and allowed just one sharply hit ball — the lone base hit, a double through the shift by Brewers first baseman Juan Francisco. It was a performance any baseball observer can appreciate, no matter her allegiance.
The eight strikeouts pushed Lincecum’s season total up to 150 in 142 innings, but nothing else about his 2013 performance has evoked memories of peak Lincecum, when he eviscerated the league on a regular basis in 2009 and 2010. Instead, the tumult of a 4.11 ERA has led to constant speculation over what’s next for the two-time Cy Young Award winner. Is the bullpen next? A trade? Both? Will the Giants even offer him a contract for next season?
The Giants have made it clear they will at least make the qualifying offer to the free-agent-to-be, but the possibility of Lincecum as a non-Giant — and not a Giant star — is a real one. The scene on Thursday afternoon showed why this would be one of the most striking team-player breakups in recent history.
It goes far beyond statistics and accolades. Lincecum captured the city’s heart with his performance, of course — the two Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, the 526 strikeouts, the 170 ERA+ — but he was on a track to become one of a select group of athletes to form a special lifelong bond with the city he plays in.
Think about Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in New York; Carl Yastrzemski and now David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia in Boston; Robin Yount with my Brewers; Kirby Puckett in Minnesota; Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro in Seattle; Ernie Banks in Chicago. The list goes on, and I’m inevitably omitting somebody’s favorite here.
Lincecum and San Francisco was an obvious match from the first. Between his Pacific Northwest roots, his wild hair and wilder delivery, and his generally laid-back nature, Lincecum was the perfect pitcher for San Franciscans to rally behind. It’s hard to imagine him in another city — New York or Boston? Anywhere in the midwest? The south? Except for maybe Seattle in his native Washington, it’s hard to imagine another city connecting with Lincecum on the same level as The City.
It was clear, just from the chatter and from the fans around me on Thursday, that the city is still behind Lincecum despite his struggles the last two seasons. They love him for the Cy Youngs, and the 2010 playoff run and the 2012 phoenix-esque resurgence out of the bullpen en route to the second championship.
I have no special love for the Giants, but I am hoping Lincecum gives their fans more to love. Over the past couple of months, Lincecum has planted the seeds of hope that he can be productive again, if not a Cy Young-grade pitcher. Since June, Lincecum has posted a 3.39 ERA in 12 starts. He has 82 strikeouts in 77 innings against just 22 walks and eight home runs. He’s made five starts with at least eight strikeouts since July. He has walked more than two batters in a game just once in his last nine starts. It hasn’t been long enough to say he’s back, for sure, but whenever one of the game’s former greats starts to figure things out like this, it’s worthy of our attention.
And on Thursday, when a nearly-full AT&T Park rose up in ovation, on a weekday afternoon contest between two last-place teams, it was clear this city has more love to give Lincecum. Maybe, just maybe, he has more to give in return.