SAN FRANCISCO – Failure brought them here together, to this place of serendipitous success. Baseball offers few in-betweens. Win or lose. Hit or miss. Ball or strike. Failure and success are the sport's dichotomy, partners on a continuum of two, the yin and yang that Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum know as well as anybody.
They sat together Wednesday night and talked. Not about the failures, because those are implicit. More about this moment, this scene, this first game of the World Series that Zito started and Lincecum locked down Wednesday night, and the way this game takes convention and doses it with LSD. Baseball stole from Zito and Lincecum their professional dignity, their perception of success and, at times, their sanity. For to have a gift and then lose it plays nasty sorts of tricks on the mind.
Just as quickly, Game 1 reminded them, baseball can return each of those things, maybe in heavier doses than before. Because there was Zito, nine-figure bust, shutting down the Detroit Tigers in the biggest game of his life. And there was Lincecum, the game's most dominant starter demoted to the bullpen, blowing away hitters like on the old highlights he tries to study. The San Francisco Giants, this team of comebacks, was witnessing two greater than any: not of a team coalescing to shock the world – and itself – as much as that of two men reminding the world – and themselves – who they can be.
The Giants beat the Tigers 8-3, and they left Barry and Timmy to their own devices and to each other for a few moments. For their obvious dissimilarities – Zito the tall, handsome, junk-balling left-hander and Lincecum, the short, ratty-haried, nasty-stuff right-hander – the two share far more than their struggles. Each is erudite and free-spirited, passionate and committed. Baseball is as much a craft as a game. Zito has learned to subsist with the slowest fastball in the major leagues. Lincecum's entire career has relied on a delivery home-brewed by his father to overcome his size deficiencies. It takes something to accept each, a mental acuity at which their struggles gnawed.
Zito's began almost immediately after the contract he signed six years ago. Lincecum's crested this season. Zito is in the postseason rotation, in part, because Lincecum isn't. The very idea that Barry Zito is starting Game 1 of the World Series and Tim Lincecum is coming in to relieve him in the sixth inning makes this story sound like a Timothy Leary production.
And yet it was real, so obviously real because of their affinity for one another. Zito and Lincecum had endured so many low moments. Damned if they weren't going to appreciate one like this.
"It's great for us to be able to share that together," Lincecum said. " … We're just riding the good times and enjoying this."
It was a buddy movie with all of the necessary elements. There was the explosion (Justin Verlander: five earned runs), the sidekick (Pablo Sandoval: three home runs), the salty boss (Bruce Bochy: at his growling best) and the beauty (Gregor Blanco: two sliding catches). And then there were the stars, Zito and Lincecum, playing off one another harmoniously.
Before the game, Zito sat in front of his locker and wore a look of calm. Fellow starter Ryan Vogelsong peeked over and wondered how Zito, who two years ago didn't even make the Giants' playoff roster, could handle a moment with such poise. And then it occurred to Vogelsong, who had a failed major league career before reinventing himself: Of course Zito was nonplussed. By now, he understands that as underwhelming as his stuff is, any mental chink will return him to baseball dystopia.
"The opportunity," Zito said, "was just magical."
In his last start, facing elimination against St. Louis, Zito threw 7 2/3 shutout innings, among the unlikeliest unscored-upon appearances in postseason history. It kick-started this run on which the Giants have gone, beating the Cardinals with three straight victories and going one-up on Detroit, which had no answer to the fluff he mixed and matched, moved and grooved, and made the Tigers look inept far more than major league hitters should against a fastball that might not warrant a speeding ticket on the interstate.
"He ixnayed anything he didn't need to think about," Lincecum said, "and just focused on what he had to do today."
Once Zito allowed a run on a Miguel Cabrera single and Delmon Young poked another to center field, Bochy lifted Zito to a roar at AT&T Park. To follow his start in St. Louis with this – to not only stymie the Tigers for five innings but sting a 97-mph Verlander fastball to the opposite field for an RBI single – didn't just exceed expectations. It obliterated and immolated and annihilated them, because this was Barry Zito, to whom everyone had attached failure.
Same went for Lincecum, who went from the best starter in the world to the worst in less than two years. He doesn't know what happened. Nobody does for sure. The numbers, ugly as they are, speak that truth. And he recognized it, which is why when Bochy jettisoned him to the bullpen, Lincecum spoke no ill words. He deserved it.
Still, to see Tim Lincecum emerge from the bullpen, settle on the mound, unfurl his body and snap off pitches is to mainline a crowd with Jolt Cola. His failure is too recent for cynicism to pervade the people, so a Lincecum appearance is an in-game rock concert to which Bochy treated everyone with his demotion.
"Any time Timmy's pitching there's an energy," Giants catcher Buster Posey said. "The fans definitely love him here. It's different for him coming out of the 'pen. But he seems to be thriving in that role. I commend him a lot for embracing it. … You have to be selfless and realize you're going to have to contribute in any way you can, no matter what that role is."
Whatever Lincecum's future, he is owning the bullpen gig. He struck out Jhonny Peralta to end any threat and followed the next inning by getting Avisail Garcia and Alex Avila swinging. In the eighth, Austin Jackson and Cabrera went down hacking, too. Of the 32 pitches Lincecum threw, Tigers hitters swung through seven, an absurd number that spoke to his teammates conjuring up comparisons to Old Timmy with a 0.84 ERA and 14 strikeouts with one walk over 10 2/3 relief innings.
"I'm not trying to go out there with that kind of heightened arrogance," Lincecum said. "I'm getting my outs. It's as simple a mindset as I can have: I'm going to get my outs until they tell me I'm done."
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Bochy yanked him with a seven-run lead, and Lincecum retired to the bench for more conversation with Zito. At 34, Zito has six years on Lincecum, and he has felt like something of a mentor this year. Lincecum never knew failure. Not in high school, not in college, not in the minor leagues, not in the major leagues. It was alien to him. Zito's ability to make his counsel without insulting Lincecum or feeding his insecurities took finesse, the sort borne of empathy rather than sympathy. Zito imbibed every last pitch of Lincecum's, proud of his friend, happy for him. Each was as exultant for the other as he was for himself, the byproduct of something genuine.
No matter how temporary the success, Game 1 happened, and it is something nobody can steal from the Giants on their surge for a ring, nor Zito and Lincecum on theirs for redemption. Among the many things Zito has learned as he tries to transition failure to success is that he cannot be the enemy. His gifts are his gifts, elfin though they may be today, and his stuff is his stuff.
"You've just got to trust it," Zito said, and it was something with which Lincecum would agree. They've spent enough time parsing their failures to understand that sometimes there is no satisfactory explanation for them. The game can be cruel like that
They kept trucking through the failures for a night like Wednesday, when baseball's dichotomy rewarded two men who needed some success. They threw strikes. They hit. And, best of all, they won.
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