Tim Lincecum gave the Braves the slip
Two-time Cy Young winner added a new wrinkle that Atlanta couldn't straighten out
SAN FRANCISCO -- There have always been reasons to doubt Tim Lincecum. His delivery was going to make him injury prone, he was too thin and, of course, many considered him too short, a trait that has been talked at length from the moment he arrived in the majors. Somehow, it's still remarkable and shocking to see how slight Lincecum appears in person.
Lincecum's legend, and really his appeal, was that he was a tiny, waifish player who could surprisingly zoom fastballs past hitters. But there came a point this season when he could no longer whip his fastball at 95-96 mph. The speed gun soon read an alarming 91-92 mph. In August, Lincecum's ERA was a ghastly 7.82. He struck out just 27 batters, the lowest monthly total since September of his rookie season when he pitched only 16 innings.
This season, according to PitchFx data from FanGraphs, the San Francisco Giants' ace threw his fastball just 39 percent of the time, the lowest percentage of his career. Clearly he was a different pitcher and there had been genuine concern about whether Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner, could ever be great again.
Yet no one had quite counted upon his guile, which may be his best trait. When robbed of his greatest weapon -- his velocity -- Lincecum came upon a new way to dominate hitters, a slider. That was his most dominating pitch in a 1-0 win against the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, in which he recorded a team-playoff-record 14 strikeouts. Lincecum allowed just two hits, and while he did not match Roy Halladay's no-hitter, he at least served notice he is once again a formidable force.
"Tonight was the best I've seen him," Braves catcher Brian McCann said.
Before his start on Sept. 12 against the San Diego Padres, Lincecum, while playing catch with Giants pitcher Matt Cain, began to experiment with a new grip for his slider. Lincecum had always held his slider almost like a two-seamer, with his index and middle finger between the narrowest parts of the seams. The torque of his slider came when he spun the ball with the outer part of his middle finger. This time, Lincecum began to throw the slider with his two fingers across the seams. Lincecum noticed that he could put more spin on the pitch because the seams gave him a better grip.
"It just kind of developed," Lincecum said. "It felt like it was just right."
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On Thursday night, Lincecum eagerly demonstrated both grips. He had tried to describe it, but realized that would be too difficult.
"I have a ball, I'll just show you," he said and then climbed on the bottom step of his locker to so he could reach the top of his locker, from where he grabbed a ball that had been tucked away into his mitt. At that moment, Lincecum was the last man, in a quiet room, on a night he did not wish to end.
Lincecum used his new grip during the final four starts of the year. He allowed just five runs in 27 innings.
The Braves thought they had adequately prepared to face Lincecum. Before Thursday's game they had been given scouting reports that warned of Lincecum's slider. Many Braves had watched video of Lincecum's final starts of the season to familiarize themselves with what had been described to them as a new pitch. But in the moment when they stepped inside the batter's box, Braves hitters realized they were woefully unprepared for the tightness of the spin and the velocity at which the slider reached home plate. It was something that became obvious rather quickly when in the first inning both Derrek Lee and McCann both swung past pitches that appeared to come out of Lincecum's hand like a changeup, but darted in a direction, and at a speed -- 87 mph -- that could only indicate it was a slider.
"We weren't unaware of it, but we hadn't seen him throw it like that," Lee said. "[The slider] changes him. Before you had nothing going away from you. He's made an adjustment."
The slider makes Lincecum appear even more deceptive. In his at-bat in the second inning, Atlanta outfielder Matt Diaz said he swung past a pitch that he believed he just missed. In that same at-bat, Diaz missed badly at strike three, yet out of Lincecum's hand both pitches looked the same.
"The slider is new, harder, more frequent," Diaz said. "It gets you looking for a third pitch. You can't see the slider out of his hand. Moves in a different direction than his changeup. It's the best I've seen his slider. He's a different animal when he has that."
On Wednesday, Lincecum had 31 swings and misses, a career high and the most for any pitcher in a game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Braves, clearly hampered by injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, swung and missed a remarkable 56.4 percent of the time. When the Braves didn't swing and miss they were late on Lincecum's 91-93 mph fastball.
"He kept his fastball just above the belt so you had to really work hard to get on top of it," Lee said.
Lincecum's high fastballs resulted in eight fly ball outs and just four groundouts.
"The high fastball ended up playing into our hands a little better than you saw late in the game," Giants catcher Buster Posey said. "We got a lot of swing throughs on high heaters."
Lincecum made few mistakes: the ball he laid out for Omar Infante, who began the game with the double, McCann's double in the sixth and the fastball over the plate to McCann that went for a fly ball out to right field in the fourth with a man on first base.
"I just missed it," McCann said. "I wanted that pitch back. It was a good pitch to hit for me. I had looked for it, got it and just missed."
But that was the beauty of Lincecum on Thursday. He made you miss.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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