Tim Lincecum looks to find his old stuff on Thursday. (AP)
He wasn't just excellence; he was excellence with an asterisk. Lincecum won back-to-back Cy Young awards and led the league in strikeouts three straight years and grew into the game's preeminent pitcher. And here's the *: He stood 5-foot-10, threw with a funky, home-grown delivery and wore long hair. His outings were events. His success was relatable. He was the stoner everyone could love.
Now this is Tim Lincecum: Hoodie over his mop, headphones over his ears, intense look over his face, wanting to get out of Busch Stadium before he has to answer questions about why it's the middle of October and only now he's getting his first start of the postseason. Two years ago, in his first playoff start, Lincecum threw a two-hit, 14-strikeout shutout. One day ago, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy needed to make an announcement that he was going to summon that same name – not that same guy – from the bullpen to take the ball for a pivotal Game 4 of an NLCS they now trail following a 3-1 loss Wednesday night.
Every year provides referenda on past vs. present, who you were vs. who you are. Alex Rodriguez was the game's best player. He is now the guy being benched for Eduardo Nunez. Next up is Tim Lincecum. He was the game's best pitcher. He is now the guy whom the Giants sent into relief to start Barry Zito.
This one start will not answer the question of who Lincecum will be – a washout whose league-worst 5.18 ERA indicates the beginning of a quick and painful downfall or the victim of a bad season bound to recover – nor is it trying to. What's material in the postseason is how someone is playing now. It is a season for small-sample-size guesses, for gut feelings – for a marriage of numbers and scouting. And based as much on the latter as the former, Bochy is convinced that the Lincecum who revealed himself over the past two weeks as a crack relief pitcher – 8 1/3 innings, one run, one walk, nine strikeouts – is more real than the up-and-down mess who time and again followed one good start with a handful of bad ones.
"He's the guy we want out there," Bochy said.
Granted, this is a decision made in concert with other alternatives not nearly as kind. Bochy has no faith in Madison Bumgarner, whose two wretched postseason outings were enough to make the manager forget about his excellent regular season. Zito will start Game 5, which, if Lincecum struggles, could make for his second win-or-go-home game this postseason, a fairly damning reflection of the Giants' long-term chances.
So, sure, it makes total sense to run Lincecum out there, to pray these last two weeks are more indicative of him than the prior six months.
"He was unlucky," third baseman Pablo Sandoval said.
Well, sure, a little. His home run rate spiked like crazy this season, and between that and fewer hitters stranded on the basepaths, that often signals an unlucky season. His swing-and-miss rate was, per usual, among the league leaders. So the indicators do support that contention.
"The fastball's got a little more life," catcher Buster Posey said.
Indeed, in his last outing Lincecum's two-seam fastball dove an inch-and-a-half more than his average during the regular season. This may have been anomalous – he barely used the two-seamer his previous outing – or perhaps a sign of better feel.
"He has really thrown the ball well," starter Matt Cain said.
This is where reality yields to platitudes. Lincecum's teammates stick up for him with excessive fervor because they want to play part support system, part psychologist, part friend. They do not know that Lincecum turned ultra-predictable against right-handed hitters this season, essentially becoming a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball 41 percent of the time and his slider 33 percent, and that after a career OPS of .647 against him, right-handers went for .814 this season. They don't know his disproportionate reliance on a slider that at the beginning of the season he scrapped for fear of arm trouble ended up harming him, with hitters bopping nearly twice as many home runs off sliders this year as in his career.
"We always expect a quality start out of Tim," shortstop Brandon Crawford said.
This is the story the Giants want to create about their erstwhile ace, and while it is their right, it is also misleading. It's impossible to expect anything of this Tim Lincecum, who is so markedly different from the one striking out 14.
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"I think he feels like his old self," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said.
Affeldt spent time in the bullpen with Lincecum, and has talked with him about execution. Pitchers love to brandish the cliché of executing their pitches. There is, of course, some validity to it. Too often this season, Lincecum's split-change leveled out in the strike zone. His fastball missed its spot. He never has been an extreme command or control pitcher, but Lincecum understood his arm well enough to spot pitches. The way he toyed with hitters in that NLDS game two years ago was clinical. The last batter, Derrek Lee, stared at three strikes to end the game. At his peak, Lincecum not only kept hitters off-balance, he backed that up with some of the filthiest stuff there was.
That was the singular genius of Lincecum. Sure, it looked better through the prism of his size and his delivery, casting an aurora borealis on this freakish mite, but it was always about how good his pitches were, how well he executed them. For someone who rarely had control, Lincecum was always in control.
All of that disappeared for most of the year, and it's unclear whether it will return for good. First things first: Let it happen in Game 4. The Giants can't go down 3-1, not with another game in St. Louis that Zito will start. Maybe something did steal Lincecum's fastball velocity and rob him of his command and siphon away that air of intimidation. Maybe it left a shell of the dominance, someone who must replace stuff with guile and learn to make do.
Whatever is left of Tim Lincecum, the Giants need him now more than ever.
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