We didn’t used to be spoiled.
It’s worth remembering that when we talk about the 2010 playoffs. Back then, even the best Giants playoff memories were tinged with disappointment: Yes, JT Snow hit that homer against Armando Benitez, but the team lost the game. Sure, Livan Hernandez threw a great game against the Mets, but two years later he was the goat in the World Series. Jason Schmidt twirled a masterpiece against the Marlins in 2003, but the team lost the next three games, one of which involved Joe Nathan looking so bad that the Giants traded him away that offseason.
So Giants fans knew that one great performance didn’t guarantee a championship, that one player dominating for one game meant almost nothing when it came to the odds of showering in confetti on Market Street. You can’t just look at a single game, consider how pumped up you were when it ended, and think, “Yeah, sure, World Series. It’s in the bag.”
On the other hand: holy shit, Tim Lincecum.
On October 7, 2010, Lincecum threw the most dominant start of his career, and no, neither of his two no-hitters is particularly close. He went all 9 innings and threw a shutout, and just for kicks he also struck out 14 and allowed just three baserunners.
2010 was a good year for Lincecum, but it was also the first time he looked mortal. Coming off of back to back Cy Youngs, expectations for him were deservedly sky high, and through the first four months he essentially delivered. Through July, Lincecum had thrown 145.1 innings with a 3.10 ERA and struck out 152, but when the calendar turned to August, he fell apart.
In a depressing preview of his last four years in a Giants uniform, Tim Lincecum was awful in August. He started five games in August, lost them all, and had a 7.82 ERA to show for it. In 25.1 August innings, Lincecum struck out 27, which is a solid total, but he walked 13 and allowed 5 homers. Not only was he mortal for the first time since his rookie year, but he was terrible. Who was this guy? Bring back that guy. We liked that guy.
So even after Lincecum settled down in September and pitched 41.2 innings with a 1.94 ERA, there was still some antsiness. He wasn’t that Tim Lincecum, he was this Tim Lincecum. That Tim Lincecum was a god-king who laid waste to his enemies and feasted upon their entrails. This Tim Lincecum was mostly a really good pitcher, but sometimes he wasn’t.
Against the Braves, this Tim Lincecum made that Tim Lincecum look like a chump.
It’s not just that he was dominant, though he was. It’s that this is what he was built to do. There was simply no question of how the game would go. Once the Giants took a 1-0 lead, that was it. Tim Lincecum was not going to let the Braves score a run. Their best chance came in the top of the seventh. Brian McCann hit a one-out double, and Alex Gonzalez advanced him to third on a weak grounder towards first base that Lincecum fielded.
That left Matt Diaz at the plate with two out and the tying run on third. If you weren’t watching that game, you might think this situation was tense. It wasn’t. It simply wasn’t. Tim Lincecum was in command in a way that you just don’t see in a 1-0 baseball game. There was no doubt he would get out of it. There was no chance the Braves would break through.
And they didn’t. Diaz got a first pitch fastball up and in, took a bad swing at it, and angrily flung his bat away. The ball settled into Andres Torres’s glove in center field, not even remotely deep. The threat was over. Lincecum would strike out four of the six batters he faced over the last couple innings, and the other two wouldn’t get the ball into the outfield. The Giants had a 1-0 series lead in their first postseason series in seven years.
The key to Lincecum’s performance was a newfound slider. The slider wasn’t a pitch that was in his arsenal before September — he had come up as a fastball-curveball guy, and then developed that wicked splitter/changeup that made him a force — but a bad month had him searching for a new weapon, and when Matt Cain taught him a new slider grip in September, Lincecum took off.
The Braves simply couldn’t tell the difference between the changeup and the slider. The two pitches looked the same out of his hand, but the movement was so different to make them both unhittable. Then those two pitches made his fastball that much better, because suddenly the Braves had no idea what was coming, and were just swinging through pitches left and right.
Derek Lowe started the game for the Braves, by the way, and maybe it’s unfair that he’s not remotely a story here. The one run the Giants scored in the game came because the umpires missed a call. In the bottom of the fourth, Buster Posey was called safe at second base on a stolen base when replays clearly showed that he was out. Cody Ross drove Posey in on a single through the left side a couple batters later, and the Giants had their lead. The conclusion from all this: haha, neener neener, Posey’s safe.
The Giants lost the next game, by the way. And it was a heartbreaker, with Sergio Romo, Brian Wilson, and some iffy defense combining to blow a late-inning lead. They could have lost the one after that too; Romo again turned a lead into a deficit in the 8th, and the team was only bailed out by The Miracle Of Conrad’s Muff.
But they won that Game 3 in a squeaker, and edged the Braves out in Game 4 too, and went on to beat the Rangers in 5 in the World Series. And maybe that would have happened no matter what; maybe there’s a world where Lincecum 5-and-dives it to open the postseason, the bullpen shuts the Braves down, and the team still celebrates in front of a grumpy Nolan Ryan in Arlington.
Maybe not, though. Maybe knowing they had Lincecum at his best got the team to push that much harder to get him on the hill for Game 1 against the Phillies. Maybe seeing an all-time performance that the media somewhat minimized because Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter the day before pissed the team off a little, and they carried that edge with them for the whole month. Maybe Pat Burrell constantly made unbelievably stupid “Let Timmy Smoke” jokes in the clubhouse, and those were somehow the key to the whole run.
All of that might be true. None of that might be true. I dunno. I just know Tim Lincecum opened the postseason by throwing a game for the ages, and a few weeks later, the Giants won the World Series for the first time since moving to San Francisco. That’s a hell of a legacy for one game.