For a few years, Dwight Gooden was a pitching god. Reaching the majors at 19, he had a start to his career that few pitchers in history could rival. In 1985, at 20, he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts. In terms of the lively ball era, post-1920, or the post-war era, it's on the shortlist for the best season a starting pitcher ever had. Then, all too soon, through some combination of overuse and substance abuse, it was over. He was an above-average pitcher for awhile, then an average one, and finally just not very good at all. He also missed the entire 1995 season, such as it was, having been suspended for cocaine use.
On May 14, 1996, he no-hit the Seattle Mariners, 2-0. He walked six and struck out five. His ERA heading into the game was 5.67. Pitchers are wonderful that way; they get to reinvent themselves every five days. Mostly they fail. Every now and again something wonderful happens, even if the 95 mph and the killer curve are only memories.
Tim Lincecum hasn't hit quite the same peaks Gooden did, having come up older and never having reached the same level of dominance (again, almost no one has), but there are some similarities. In his second season he commenced a four-year streak of striking out over 200 batters, a three-year streak of leading the league in strikeout rate, and a two-year streak of winning the National League Cy Young Award. In 2011 he became only the eighth pitcher since the end of the 19th century to reach 1,000 strikeouts in his first five seasons.
In 2012 he went 10-15, leading the league in losses, and posting a 5.18 ERA, which is even worse than it looks due to the pitching-favoring Giants home park. Last year he went 10-14 with a 4.37 ERA, which, due to the dropping offensive levels in baseball and those same park effects, wasn't a whole lot better.
On July 13 of last year, he took the mound with an ERA of 4.61. He faced the San Diego Padres that day. He walked four, struck out 13, and though it took 148 pitches for him to get there, he did not allow a hit.
He was bombed in his next start, had an ERA of 4.54 for the rest of the year. Again, pitchers are the luckiest of all of us, because every five days they have the opportunity to be someone new.
Wednesday, Lincecum faced those same San Diego Padres and again did not allow a hit. As of Tuesday morning, his ERA was 4.90 and he had struck out a career-low 8.4 batters per nine innings in 15 starts. He struck out only six. It didn't matter. That the Padres are a weak-hitting team that just fired their general manager doesn't matter -- weak-hitting teams go whole years without being no-hit.
What does matter for Lincecum's second no-hitter, as for his first, as for Dwight Gooden's, is not that the great game shows that they are back to being what they were before -- between no-hitters, Lincecum made 28 starts and went 10-10 with a 4.72 ERA and 145 strikeouts in 164 innings pitched (the stuff has remained to some extent, if not the results) -- but that on any given day a pitcher can exceed his own capabilities, recapture a moment of past glory. A hitter whose past it may never be able to start his swing early enough to catch up to a good fastball again, and a pitcher of the same stage in life may never throw with the old zip either ... but some days he doesn't have to.
Come to think of it, maybe that's a good lesson for all of us.