On days between starts, righthander Jason Schmidt likes to pass the time in the San Francisco Giants' dugout by chewing three pieces of Bazooka (one regular, two sugarless), blowing a portly pink bubble and sticking it on an unsuspecting person's cap. The gag, of course, is to see how long the wad of gum goes undetected by the victim. Three weeks ago, during a desultory 7-3 win over the Oakland A's, a bubble lasted an astonishing 7� innings atop the hat of third base coach Gene Glynn's 17-year-old son, Gino, who was in the dugout serving as bat boy. Gino swiped it off, to raucous applause from fans in several sections of box seats who could see into the dugout, only after he saw himself on SBC Park's centerfield Jumbotron.
"You've got to make sure it's a nice, firm bubble that's not going to pop," explains Schmidt, who sneaks up on his prey from behind. "Sometimes I'll put it on the bill, because so many guys know my routine. They feel the top of their hats, but they never feel the bill, and it can stay there all night."
He giggles. "Gene Glynn's kid. That was a good one. Almost a complete game."
Schmidt is a 31-year-old with a six-year-old's sense of humor. (He has two kids of his own: Makynlee, 3, and Mason, five months.) He plies his slapstick with joy buzzers, electrified Coke cans and a remote-controlled flatulence noisemaker. He arrives at the ballpark early so he can leave an exploding ballpoint pen on the clubhouse pass list. Pitching coach Dave Righetti is fairly certain that Schmidt is responsible for the Playboy subscription that began arriving at his house last season. (With a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin, Schmidt denies it.) Schmidt watches Jackass and Punk'd and envies the shows' stars. "They've got unlimited time, unlimited resources," he says.
Every fifth day, however, Schmidt quits making his teammates look foolish and hangs KICK ME signs on opposing hitters instead. By throwing seeds past the Colorado Rockies for eight innings of a 4-0 Giants win last Saturday night at Coors Field, Schmidt earned his 12th consecutive victory (a pair of one-hitters among them) and pushed his record to 12-2, best in the National League; his 2.35 ERA and 9.83 strikeouts per nine innings both ranked third in the NL. Said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle afterward, "He's got the Cy Young in his crosshairs."
"His consistency and dominance is what I've seen from guys like Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson," says Giants first baseman J.T. Snow. "You find yourself expecting to win when he's out there, and that's what a Number 1 is supposed to be."
An undistinguished, unhappy starter on a last-place team when the Pittsburgh Pirates sent him to San Francisco at the 2001 trade deadline—in parts of seven big league seasons with the Atlanta Braves and Pirates he was 49-53 with a 4.58 ERA—Schmidt made an about-face and established himself as an ace. "It was like I started my career again," he says. "I felt rejuvenated." And the move to capacious Pac Bell Park suited his extreme fly ball tendency. (His career ERA there is 2.38, compared with 4.28 in other parks.) As a Giant, Schmidt has gone 49-16 with a 2.81 ERA that ranks second in the majors over that period, behind only Pedro Martinez's 2.60; his 1.07 walks and hits per inning pitched and 9-33 strikeouts per nine innings rank fourth and fifth, respectively.
Schmidt has gone from a nibbler who depended on breaking stuff in crucial situations to a blunt, straightforward hoss. The 6'5" 205-pounder relies almost exclusively on a fastball that reaches 97 mph as easily in the ninth inning as it does in the first and a hard, biting high-80s changeup that mimics (and is often mistaken for) a splitter. Schmidt went to the fastball, which he has thrown about 75% of the time in recent starts, largely because of Benito Santiago, who caught Schmidt in 2003 before signing as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals after the season. Contrary to Schmidt, who keeps video of all his appearances on a laptop and scrutinizes himself and the hitters he'll face, Santiago keeps it simple. In Schmidt's case that meant a steady supply of gas.
"Benito liked fastballs," Schmidt says. "A lot of times I'd be struggling, wouldn't know what to throw a guy, and he'd put down fastball. I'd think, Well, this is the time I'd really like to throw something else. But I'd throw the fastball and get the guy out. I found out what kind of pitcher I was."
Besides attacking with his heater, which he can locate anywhere, Schmidt last season developed the confidence to use his changeup in any count situation. The change dates to his days in Pittsburgh, where pitching coach Pete Vuckovich, while goofing around one day, showed Schmidt a dry spitball—a trick pitch gripped seamless, like a true spitter, but without the saliva—that dived sharply out of Schmidt's hand. Schmidt tried throwing his changeup with the same grip and saw a noticeably bigger break than his circle change had. He kept tweaking the grip until he could throw the change hard, with the same motion as his fastball, while inducing the ball to dive out of the strike zone. It is the hardest changeup in baseball; in terms of break and velocity only Eric Gagne's split-change comes close.