CINCINNATI – A little before 1 p.m. Wednesday, a red minivan pulled up to Gate 3 at Great American Ball Park. The door slid open, and out of the taxi stepped Tim Lincecum, slim in his street clothes, sporting huge headphones, looking more like a college student or a Red Hot Chili Pepper than a San Francisco Giant.
Lincecum wore the game face of a starting pitcher preparing for a playoff game, which he was and he wasn't. He has been a starter. He is a starter. He will be a starter again, maybe in the near future. But for now, his struggles outweighed his two Cy Youngs. Instead of their disappointing $18.25 million man, the Giants were starting their disappointing $19 million man, Barry Zito, while facing elimination against the Cincinnati Reds. Lincecum was set to come out of the bullpen.
Maybe it was for the best. Because at about 5:45 p.m., Giants manager Bruce Bochy walked to the mound and made the signal. The door slid open, and out of the pen stepped Lincecum, running through right field, long hair flapping behind him, ready to grab the ball.
Bottom of the fourth. Two on, two out. One-run game. Ryan Ludwick at the plate. Lincecum fell behind in the count 2-0, then got Ludwick to foul off a 90-mph fastball, then threw back-to-back, 84-mph sinking changeups that Ludwick couldn't touch. Inning over.
Game over. The Giants rode their resurgent offense to an 8-3 victory while Lincecum stabilized their pitching situation, giving up two hits and one run in 4 1/3 innings, striking out six. San Francisco now has a shot to do something that has never been done before in a National League Division Series – come back to win after losing the first two games.
"Coming in, getting that strikeout of Ludwick, I mean, that was the difference in the game right there," said Zito, who lasted only 2 2/3 innings. "I think we just fed off the momentum after that."
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For months, we have wondered what happened to Lincecum. Where was the guy who was so great in 2008 and 2009 and helped the Giants win the World Series in 2010? Where did his velocity go? Was it his quirky delivery? His work ethic? His diet? His weight? His age? What?
Lincecum went 10-15 during the regular season. His 5.18 earned-run average was the highest among qualifying pitchers in the NL and fourth-highest in the bigs. He led the NL in losses, runs (111), earned runs (107), home runs (23) and wild pitches (17), and he was second in walks (90).
But maybe part of the problem was that Lincecum wondered, too. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he called his father, Chris, the man behind that quirky delivery. He kept eschewing fast food and working harder on his fitness, but he decided losing 33 pounds in the offseason was too much – where the heck did he find 33 pounds on that frame? – and regained 10 to tip the scales at 167. He discovered that his body didn't recover quite the same at 28 as it did at 24 or 25.
He also was smart enough to realize that all that thinking could turn into overthinking. What did Crash Davis tell Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham"? "Don't think. It can only hurt the ballclub." Lincecum talked about the KISS approach – Keep It Simple, Stupid – with reliever Javier Lopez.
The KISS approach, Lincecum told the Chronicle, "was eluding me."
Well, Lincecum has found it in the bullpen. This is two solid outings now. He threw two innings in Game 2, too, allowing only one hit and striking out two. His rubber arm doesn't need long to warm up, so why give his mind more time than it needs?
"When you're starting, you have a couple hours to get loose," Zito said. "You go through your whole routine in [the clubhouse] and all that stuff. But the adrenaline boost is much higher when you're coming out of the bullpen."
"The bullpen's definitely a different beast," said Brian Wilson, the black-bearded Giants closer who is out injured. "You have to be ready faster. I'd say there's a lot more situational adrenaline… You can either feed off of it, or you can let it swallow you. But if you're a great pitcher like Tim, you feed off that energy and you utilize it to your advantage."
Despite his stoner persona, Lincecum is a competitor. He pitches angry. It used to be the Napoleon syndrome, because he was the little guy who had to prove everybody wrong. Now it might be because the Giants didn't give him a start in this series, even though he won't admit it. Wherever it originates, that anger and energy needs to be focused. It cannot be diffused or distracted.
Coming out of the bullpen with two on and two outs in a one-run elimination game, there is no time to dwell on mechanics or diet or weight or age. There is no room for the past, good or bad. There is only now. You've got to Keep It Simple, Stupid.
"It's just that I've got to get my outs and do my job," Lincecum said. "You don't have to pace yourself through a certain amount of innings. You're just here to get outs until they tell [you] you're done. To be able to go into the stretch and think about where I want to throw it, as opposed to how I'm going to get it there, that's easier for me."
Lincecum still lacks his old fastball, and that is a long-term concern. But if his changeup still looks like a fastball, if he stays on top of the ball and keeps it down in the zone, it is still good enough to get outs. Big outs. Ludwick can tell you that.
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"His changeup, when he throws it good, still has a good finish to it," Ludwick said. "That's Tim. That's what he's known for. He's known for that electric fastball – which is down a little bit – but he's always had that good changeup. It was good. Today it was deceptive for me."
Lincecum will be a starter again. Asked if he would consider starting Lincecum in the National League Championship Series, Bochy said: "I think you have to. He stepped up and did a terrific job. … To do what he did was impressive. So I think, yeah, [if] we get to that point, sure, we'll talk about it."
But the Giants have to get to that point first. Matt Cain, who threw a perfect game earlier this year, will start Game 5 on Thursday. Hunter Pence, who pumped up his teammates with a pregame pep talk for the second straight day, will pump up his teammates with a pregame pep talk for the third straight day. Lincecum said he was available to come out of the pen again.
"If they need me," Lincecum said, hood pulled up on his gray sweatshirt in a news conference, seated next to teammate Angel Pagan, "yeah."
"All right, baby!" Pagan said.
KISS the struggles goodbye.
"The whole year and all that stuff, it's all behind him now," Zito said. "He's the hero today. It's great to see him go out and do what he did."
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