Return of the freak show as Tim Lincecum makes pitching debut at Safeco Field
June 19, 2012
By Matt Carstens
With their season on the line in a loser-out playoff game in the KingCo tournament, the 2003 Liberty Patriots knew they something had to give.
After being held in check for six innings, Liberty entered the dugout in the top of the seventh down 2-0. Fed up with the effort, third basemen Sean Webster entered the dugout with a message.
“I don’t want the season to be over,” he said.
Former Liberty ace and current San Francisco Giants star Tim Lincecum, who was in Seattle last weekend to pitch his first game against the Mariners at Safeco Field, said he knew from that point on that this team had something special.
“You could just see the relentlessness, the never-give-up thing,” Lincecum said in an interview at Safeco the day before the game. “I wasn’t really a part of the game at that point, I wasn’t a position player, I was just a pitcher, so that game I was pretty much watching at that point. And to see us score 10 runs in that last inning and win the tournament, and then go on and play against Yelm in the quarterfinals.”
‘We could win this thing’
Finishing fourth in the KingCo Conference that year, Liberty wasn’t exactly a favorite going into the state tournament, but they knew with a pitcher like Lincecum, nicknamed The Freak, anything was possible.
Current Liberty softball coach Brian Hartman was an assistant coach on the ’03 baseball team and recalled the moment that the staff realized that the team had a realistic shot to make a run at the state title.
While hanging around with the other coaches right after winning the KingCo tournament, the group looked ahead to the next few weeks. They quickly realized with the way the state tournament was set up, they had more than a fighting chance.
“So we were like, ‘Yeah, we could win this thing!’” Hartman said in a phone interview last week. “Tim’s going to win one game for us, we just got to figure out how to win the other one that weekend. So having him really set us up for that run, and that’s exactly what happened.”
On to the semifinals, on autopilot
They headed to Chehalis to play Yelm in the quarterfinals, and once they arrived they were greeted in full force by the Yelm faithful.
Since the two teams were unfamiliar with each other, the Yelm fans tried to get under Liberty’s skin early.
“You’re going down Liberty!” a heckler yelled. “You suck! We’re the Yelm Tornado!”
Of course, they’d never seen Lincecum pitch.
“I remember being pretty nervous that first inning,” Lincecum said. “I gave up a hit and was thinking that this team looks pretty good. I remember that shortstop was a pretty good baseball player. He was on the all-state team.”
After that first inning, Lincecum put it on autopilot and cruised to a 13-0 victory. He struck out 16 and walked only one.
No ordinary play
The next game, against West Seattle, was a little bit more of a nail-biter. Paul Routos took the mound and struck out six and walked two. The Patriots entered the final frame tied at 2-2.
With Liberty base runners on first and third, head coach Glen Walker put on a delayed steal. But as Lincecum remembers, it wasn’t an ordinary play.
“We had the guy on first fall over on purpose to get picked off and draw a pick throw,” he said. “So when he gets up he gets in a pickle. So the throw goes over to first usually, and at that level I’m not sure a lot of players are aware of what’s going on so the guy gets off third base and our guy on third just took off and scored the winning run.”
With the lead regained, Liberty won the game, 3-2, and moved onto the semifinals at Everett Stadium. But more immediately, the team moved on to their prom, which was held that same night.
“We had a huge group,” Lincecum said. “Probably like 40 or 50 people, so everyone was in the stands in their tuxedos and dresses, so it was kind of crazy to watch that.”
Lincecum said he had a good prom night, but suffered from a little bit too much excitement.
“I remember having the worst stomachache because of all the nerves and excitement,” he said. “But it turned out to be a pretty good night.”
‘The kind of stuff you come to watch’
Next on the checklist to the championship was the semifinal game against O’Dea.
“You have to pitch your ace to get there,” Hartman said. “And Tim pitched the day before in the semifinal against a very tough O’Dea team and just shut them down.”
“Shut them down” might be an understatement. Lincecum tossed a one-hitter along with 13 strikeouts and only one walk.
“It was a good game,” Lincecum said. “But the next game was much more special because Paul pitched his ass off. He threw a lot of pitches and he finished the game. We had like four double-plays turned, two people thrown out at the plate, so we were playing really good defense. It was just one of those games that was like this is the kind of stuff you come to watch.”
Liberty set the tone early. After scouting West Valley the day before, the team noticed how West Valley would take over center field for pre-game warm ups. So immediately after the game before them ended, the Patriots swarmed center field, letting West Valley know that this was their field.
“We were this scrappy little team and Timmy was the big name on it,” Hartman recalled. “We had several other good players but the thing about that team is that they were really, really a tough group. Very kind of dirtball, scrappy, no one would have picked us to beat West Valley. They were very polished and tall and college-looking boys, and we were just this scrappy little team from Renton.”
Ahh, the Mojo Ball…
Routos took the mound and knew that if he pitched like he knew he could, good things would happen.
“I’m a completely different kind of pitcher than Tim,” Routos said in a phone interview last week. “He just goes and strikes everybody out and shuts down hitters. For me it was, I’m out here with seven guys behind me, just let them put it into play and let my team do the work that we’ve practiced. I wasn’t as dominating as Tim, not even close.”
But with Liberty’s offense that day, he didn’t need to be.
“I think I had two runners on every inning at least,” Routos said. “I gave up 14 hits in the game — it was definitely a struggle, one of those days, where at the end of the game you just had to thank the rest of your teammates for being there, couldn’t have done it with out them. It was a long game.”
Liberty won the game with a final score of 7-4, and like with most teams, part of the credit went to a good luck charm, the Mojo Ball.
“The biggest thing I remember from that year was we had one of those giant baseballs,” Routos said. “It was probably a little bit smaller than a basketball, and we said it was our ‘Mojo Ball.’ The Mariners had the Sodo Mojo, and we had our own little mojo thing. We always had it with us and it was kind of our good luck type of thing. It was cool at the end, we all signed the ball and it was just something that kind of brought the team together.“
Lincecum also remembered the infamous Mojo Ball fondly.
“We signed it and we carried it everywhere with us and everybody would touch it before games just to get in the zone,” he said.
Lincecum returns as a big leaguer
On June 16, Lincecum returned to Seattle to pitch against the Mariners for the first time in Safeco Field.
Lincecum has had his struggles this year, posting a 2-8 record with a 6.19 ERA.
He was asked by the media upon his return if he had gone to his dad for advice, since his father Chris was the one who taught him his unique delivery and mechanics.
“I think our relationship become more about life,” Lincecum said. “Back in the day, he was my coach and my teacher and getting me prepared for this life, and now I’m on my own and he’s had to let go the last couple years. We talk to each other, not as much as I’m sure people would think, but we are still as close as we can be.”
Lincecum’s struggles continued on Saturday against a Mariners team that hadn’t won a game since its combined no-hitter against the Dodgers on June 8.
After giving up two solo home runs to Casper Wells and Jesus Montero in the first inning, Lincecum settled down, showing great movement on his changeup and sitting at about 93 miles per hour with his fastball.
But then came the fifth inning, where he surrendered two runs, tying the game at 4-4.
“I felt like I could have got out of the inning if I caught the ball that was right to me,” Lincecum said, talking about an Ichiro RBI single hit up the middle. “I just missed it. I should have caught it.”
‘It was awesome’
Lincecum was pulled from the game after allowing a lead-off single to Montero in the sixth inning. Montero came around to score along with two other Mariners runs and the game ended with a final score of 7-4.
Although Lincecum ended up with the loss, there were marked improvements and he looked like his old self for stretches, but to him the silver linings aren’t enough.
“I’m just going to be looking at that ‘L’ obviously,” he said. “Right now, I’m not happy about the loss, but there’s silver linings here and I’ll take those, but I’m still just pissed.”
One positive Lincecum can take away was that the people of Seattle still love him. Ovations were around every corner and fans cheered him the loudest when he walked back to the dugout after being pulled.
“I really didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “But to get that response at all, it was awesome.”
Matt Carstens: 392-6434, ext. 236, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.