SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It would have put to rest so many questions if Tim Lincecum had just come out and had a strong spring. Not even a dominating spring or a return-to-Cy-Young-form spring.
Just a promising one. Just good enough that the San Francisco Giants could say, "OK, there's some of the old Tim Lincecum we used to know. That's one thing we don't have to worry about right now."
That hasn't happened this spring and it definitely didn't happen Saturday, as Lincecum struggled in three innings against the Oakland Athletics. Before Saturday's start, Lincecum had given up eight runs in 7 2/3 innings. A blister on his middle finger caused him to miss two starts.
Things didn't get better against the A's. Lincecum gave up five run on six hits and three walks, taking the L in the Giants' 12-5 defeat. His spring ERA? It's in the double digits — 10.97.
Most of carnage was his own fault. Lincecum got too deep into counts and lacked command.
"Some good moments," Lincecum said, "and some pretty bad ones. Letting batters get away and not finishing guys off. That's a little rough. Outside of that, I had the strikeouts. Stuff was moving around pretty well. It just goes back to location."
He did strike out five, showing that his swing-and-miss stuff still exists. The problem, Lincecum said, is that he couldn't repeat his mechanics well enough. There was no rhythm, no consistency.
The day could be summed up in a third-inning at-bat against Seth Smith. Lincecum threw a fastball past Smith and got him to wave at a breaking ball. But then Lincecum filled the count and Smith eventually singled.
"Today, he was just off," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "He was battling himself out there. He was out of sync. He was trying to find it, and he did it at times. He had a hard time getting it where he wanted and being consistent with the delivery."
All told, Lincecum threw 80 pitches and only 46 of them for strikes. That's definitely not an ace-level ratio. This is the same guy who in 2009, the second of his consecutive Cy Young seasons, threw a 95-pitch, two-hit shutout.
Saturday was more like Lincecum's rough 2012 season, where he'd routinely hit the 100-pitch mark by the fifth or sixth inning. He finished last year 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, sent to the bullpen during the Giants' World Series run.
Walks and first-inning runs were Lincecum's kryptonite last season, and they hurt him against the A's. In the first inning all three outs where strikeouts, but Lincecum walked a batter before Yoenis Cespedes launched a sure-thing home run to left-center. Estimates had it going at least 450 feet.
A slider that didn't break is how Lincecum identified the pitch. Again, a case of his command not cooperating. He's hopeful, though, that things will be better by the regular season.
"Once I get there," Lincecum said, "which I don't feel like I'm too far off, with the pitch counts getting up as well. It should just kind of coincide and my timing should be good."
After the game, catcher Buster Posey said Lincecum is working hard, which is what people were saying last year too.
"Timmy's working his tail off," Posey said. "I think that's the main thing. He's working in between each start. He's in the weight room all the time. That's what's it going to take. Just keep on grinding."
It's hard to say how much of the Giants' 2013 success will depend on Lincecum. They won a World Series last season and he wasn't even close to his best.
He's the Giants third starter now, with Matt Cain firmly the Giants' frontline guy. Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have picked up the slack while Lincecum goes through his quarter-life pitching crisis. And Barry Zito was a nice surprise in 2012.
Lincecum getting back to even winning form would be a boost if the Giants want to stay ahead of the max-out-the-bank-account Los Angeles Dodgers. But if he has a rough couple of April starts, it won't take long for the whispers to start again, like they did last year.
Should Lincecum be in the bullpen again? Will he find his mojo there? Do the Giants need another starter? What happened to "The Freak?"
Like there's a switch that someone forgot to flip before the 2011 season.
Maybe its time to start looking at Lincecum for what he actually is these days: A third starter.
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