LOS ANGELES – Fairly obvious by now that Tim Lincecum probably will never again be that Tim Lincecum, the San Francisco Giants have him in the middle of their rotation, so somewhere between the shutdown ace he used to be and the shutdown reliever he was in October.
He took the ball Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers, at the end of a series that held the potential of giving one team something to think about, and was erratic, resourceful and oddly effective for five innings. Showing a reasonable enough fastball, he walked seven, pitched into, around and out of a handful of combustible moments, and generally held it together. The guy who threw the ceremonial first pitch worked out of the windup for longer than Lincecum (and possessed greater command), but after 91 pitches Lincecum hadn't allowed an earned run, because on top of the seven walks, the Dodgers were gifted a passed ball and an error and did almost nothing with those, either.
Maybe that was Lincecum. Or maybe Lincecum was due a little luck. Or maybe the Dodgers spent three hours hanging awful at-bat after awful at-bat. The folks who comprised the second sellout of the season at Dodger Stadium seemed to settle on the third possibility.
Privately, the Giants have not the slightest notion what to expect from Lincecum this season, not after last season's 5.18 ERA, not after spring's 10.57 ERA, and probably not after Wednesday night's 0.00 ERA. A scout in attendance said Lincecum might be best suited as a reliever, though that was before the seven walks. Besides, the Giants need Lincecum to be a starter, and a good one. And Lincecum, if he has designs on a contract of some heft at the end of the season – he'll be a free agent in November – needs to be a starter, and a good one.
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He's nearly impossible not to root for, given his earnestness and his David bearing in a Goliath world. And he did fight for every single one of those 91 pitches, even when he wasn't sure where they were going. Or, perhaps, especially when he didn't know when they were going. The Giants beat the Dodgers, 5-3, and won the series, two games to one, because of Madison Bumgarner and then because of Lincecum's unwillingness to lose and a savvy bullpen.
I wonder what it's like to squat beneath the burden of two Cy Young Awards and a roaring fastball and haul them all out to the mound, when the Cy Youngs are four seasons back and the fastball, at 28 years old, ain't what she used to be. It's seemed for a while now that Lincecum has been stuck between chasing velocity and learning to pitch without that ultimate escape pitch. Some nights it works and other nights word comes you're simply not good enough for a postseason start, and Lincecum just keeps battling.
The game can turn a man in circles like that. After three games, Matt Kemp remains oh-for-the-season. On Wednesday night he left eight men on base, two by grounding into a none-out, five-three double play against Giants reliever George Kontos. Afterward, Kontos said Kemp's set-up leaves him vulnerable to the Giants' scouting report.
"With that closed-off stance," Kontos said, "he doesn't really get to that inside heater very well."
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The Dodgers had a single big hit in the series, that being Clayton Kershaw's home run Monday afternoon. Beyond that, Giants pitchers were better. And if the Dodgers had any notions of loading up and hitting the defending NL West and World Series champs in the nose, the opportunity was lost when the Dodgers had one hit in 14 at-bats with runners in scoring position Wednesday.
So the fans here pulled their give-away hoodies around their necks and booed when their new Dodgers struck out and popped up and grounded into double plays, and when the Giants skipped off the field, their lead still intact, along with their status in the division.
The Dodgers would put 11 on base in five innings against Lincecum, and then Lincecum would find the ends of their bats, or the necks, or miss them entirely. Generally, he was the guy the Giants saw last season – lots of baserunners, lots of pitches – only this time Lincecum avoided the put-away moment. If Lincecum has flamed out, or is in the process of flaming out, or is simply learning a way to get around his limitations, he willed himself through five more innings. So, maybe, progress. He lugged a .316 batting average on balls in play against him last season, which is very high, and would suggest Lincecum is due better fortune, though only when he rediscovers his release point.
"I felt like today I was more competing than pitching," he said. "I just try to pitch with my heart out there when things aren't going well."
Anymore, he said, he's not so concerned with the outcome as he is all the tiny moments, the tiny decisions, that lead to the outcome. He doesn't pitch to get those Cy Youngs back. He perhaps doesn't pitch to get 97 mph back, though you couldn't blame him for trying occasionally. He'll take what he has, on the nights he's given the ball, and stand out there until they drag him off. The results aren't always great anymore, but, he's sure, they can be. He was a hit or two from disaster for a couple hours, but those hits never came. And whether that was because he wouldn't quit or because the Dodgers' bats were kind, none of that mattered. Because the Giants won, Lincecum won, and soon there'll be another chance.
So I asked about the burden, and Lincecum smiled. He's been asked before. It just seems exhausting at times. He smiled.
"It's not like a huge burden for me," he said. "It's more like an expectation."
So, more of a positive thing. Embrace the journey, wherever it's headed, that sort of thought.
"Exactly," he said.
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