It seemed like a sudden transition when Schmidt became schmidt. The Giants had their first Cy Young contender in a decade. Then a groin is strained, a baby cried, a dog howled, and suddenly the Giants didn't have an ace. They had a righty with fringe velocity and wobbly control; a profile that carried over into the next season.
Even when Schmidt had good games last season, it wasn't the same thing you'd get from him just a year earlier. He had started 2005 with two quick wins, striking out 16 in 13 innings. Then came the velocity yips and command issues. He mixed a couple of dominating performances in for good measure - like this gem against Arizona - but even those successes seemed to come without his best fastball.
One thing you always worried about with Schmidt's reduced velocity was the possibility of an injury. It'd be pretty easy to explain the missing 5 mph away if his rotator cuff was cobwebs and custard. There was always a bit of morbid expectation with each Schmidt start, wondering if this could be the last start for a while.
I'll hazard a guess that the fellow who pitched for the Giants last night isn't hiding an injury. The fastball was 92-95, and the changeup was doing a vintage and filthy 88 mph dance away from left-handed hitters. When Schmidt features stuff this exceptional is when he stops walking guys. Maybe his physical control is the same, rain or shine, but the stuff can improve to the point of making hitters chase pitches with more frequency. Rarely do you see an A.J. Burnett-special, with eight walks and eight strikeouts in six innings. I doubt Schmidt will ever make a smooth transition to finesse pitcher.
Schmidt has two more complete games than he did all of last year. He also pitched his first game without walking a hitter in over a year in his last start, and did it again last night. And to do it all on 95 pitches? That was as amazing as it is beautiful. Some of it has to do with a free swinging Cubs team, but you can never take away from that kind of economy. It's a little premature to expect Schmidt to be a Cy Young contender again, but I'd be thrilled if he could even just split the difference between 2004 and 2005. If he keeps pitching like he did last night, I'll get his face tattooed on my back.*
And the problem with the Cubs is this: The team would make a little more sense if they had one guy named "Jacque Pierre", and another named "Juan Jones". Fix that, and you've got a contender. That, and getting Mark Prior and Kerry Wood back might also help. That Derrek Lee guy was pretty good to have hanging around, too.