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Matt Cain had heard all about this Tim Lincecum wunderkind, who, with only eight minor league games under his small belt, arrived at the Giants' 2007 spring training camp with the kind of word-of-mouth buzz befitting a blockbuster movie. A talented righthander himself, Cain had just finished his first full major league season and wasn't buying the buzz. "I'm thinking, They hype this guy way too much," Cain recalls. "He's coming here throwing 97, 98 effortlessly, punching tickets.... No way he's that good." ¶ It would take a few minutes for Cain to become a believer, to understand that a rare window of opportunity could be opening for San Francisco. Just playing catch, Lincecum amazed Cain with the velocity and life in his arm. "I'm like, O.K., this guy throws cheese," Cain says.
Cain returned fire. Soon the two of them were whipping fastballs at each other, from the lithe Seattle-area hipster (Lincecum) to the broad-shouldered brick house from Alabama by way of Tennessee (Cain). Whatever their differences, the baseball connected them, like a taut lifeline between two climbers. It was obvious to pitching coach Dave Righetti what was going on: The two of them, as Cain says, were "just burning each other out. It was nonstop."
"O.K.," Righetti told them, "you guys aren't allowed to play catch anymore."
So began the making of Lincecain: one of the best young pitching tandems since the Dead Ball era, two hypercompetitive dudes born four months apart who are so good they could drag one of the worst offensive teams not only into the postseason but also, with the premium October places on power arms, deep into it. Lincecum and Cain can't even take batting practice without seeing who gets the most hits. And playing catch? When Righetti looks the other way, they're out to inflict pain.
"Obviously we're not trying to kill each other like maybe we did the first year playing catch," Cain says. "But I'm trying to throw him a nasty changeup to jam his thumb, and he's trying to do the same to me."
"There's a spot right here," says Lincecum, sticking his left elbow out and holding his palm in front of the left side of his abdomen, "where I'm trying to get him. The chicken wing."
Lincecain is the primary reason—well, just about the only reason—that the otherwise gentle Giants are wild-card contenders. San Francisco was 33--18 at week's end when Lincecum or Cain started, 34--39 behind anybody else. Lincecum and Cain bring an unyielding, old-school determination to the mound, making them perfect fits for the rare organization not bound by pitch counts. Through Sunday, Cain had thrown at least 110 pitches in a game 39 times since 2007 and Lincecum 38 times, ranking them first and second in the National League.
"They're the best one-two punch in baseball, without a doubt," Mets rightfielder Jeff Francoeur says. "I know there are other good ones, like CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, but these guys are so good, and they go into the seventh, eighth, ninth inning every time they go out there.
"They're the one team everybody fears in the playoffs. You know you can't win a series without beating one of them. With those two guys, the Giants in the postseason look like the 2001 Diamondbacks with Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson."
But here's the big difference: While Schilling and Johnson were well into their 30s in '01, Lincecum turned 25 in June and Cain gets there in October. That the Giants could have two pitchers this young throwing this well is the historical equivalent of the same person hitting the lottery twice. At week's end Lincecum and Cain both had ERAs of 2.43. Since 1920 only two teams have had two 25-and-under starters with ERAs below 2.50, and both were from 1968, famously known as the Year of the Pitcher for its meager run totals: the Mets (Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman) and the A's (Jim Nash and Blue Moon Odom).