LOS ANGELES – Tim Lincecum had his fastball Wednesday night, and while life is usually more complicated than that, it doesn't have to be.
Almost nothing cuts through the hardball miasma like the well-placed, steaming fastball. It is the resolution to pitcher-catcher indecision. It is the dragon that stirs, threatening, in a hitter's subconscious. It is the saber in a pitcher's psyche. And, it is what helped drive Lincecum to two Cy Young Awards by the time he was 25.
Baseball is simple like that. Until it's not.
And that's where the haze sets in, particularly for a pitcher such as Lincecum, once amazing for a fastball so angry coming from something so wispy. Now, at 27 and going on 1,100 major-league innings, Lincecum still is on the wispy side, only with a generally mellower fastball. By the looks of things, that's left him temporarily stuck between seeking his old fastball and learning to live with the new one.
All of which made the seventh start of his sixth season the more mysterious, as he stood on the Dodger Stadium mound with something like his former and familiar fastball – close enough, anyway – and was, again, something less than we've come to expect from him.
After a five-inning, 101-pitch, four-run adventure, his ERA stood at 5.89. He struck out Matt Kemp three times yet could not finish Tony Gwynn Jr. at 0-and-2 in the most pivotal of those 101 pitches. Twice in five innings he pitched out of trouble, yet three times he pitched himself into trouble.
The new Lincecum is so close the old Lincecum could reach out and touch him, as the fastball is perfectly workable and the change-up remains devastating, yet the new and evolving Lincecum has one quality start in seven, and the San Francisco Giants have lost five of those, including Wednesday's to the Dodgers 6-2.
He has found a way out of this before. In 2010, when he lost every start in August, for one. He merely adjusted the grip on his curveball, called it a slider, won five games in September and, more memorably, four in October.
So, no, seven starts into 2012, Lincecum hasn't been the same guy. He's giving up more than a hit per inning. His walks are up. There's something desperate in the way he pitches, more desperate than he usually looks with that fantastically unique delivery. Like he's searching for the right pitch and the right moment, for another inch or two on the fastball, for the next epiphany that leads him into the eighth inning with the ballgame in his back pocket.
But it's in there, even if he has to find a way around a fastball that in his first six starts averaged less than 90 mph. He came out against the Dodgers popping 93. Five of his first six outs were strikeouts. Kemp, for 30 games the best player in the National League, swung over the top of – in order – a change-up, a slider and another change-up for the first three-strikeout night of his season.
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Lincecum was OK, but not close to great. He's throwing more pitches per inning – about 21 – than anyone in the National League. Therefore, the bad break costs him a run. The bad pitch – in this case a languid slider to Gwynn with the bases loaded – costs him three. And the merely decent start costs the Giants, who generally won't do him any favors with run support, another loss.
At the moment, he has a lot of notions running through his brain. He was afraid he threw too many change-ups Wednesday – 31 of his 101 pitches – so that he'd gotten "change-up happy." The slider to Gwynn, he said, was poorly executed, "I think I could have hit that pitch." And maybe in the starts in which his fastball strained to touch 90, the change-up did not offer enough velocity separation to be effective, but that wasn't the problem against the Dodgers. It was a few pitches, and then it was working back from what didn't work, and then it was all the thoughts that bubbled up as a result.
"I try not to put them in my brain," he said. "Just try to keep it simple."
He says he is healthy.
"I wasn't really worried about those questions at all," he said. "I was only concerned about how I felt, and I've felt healthy all year long."
He wants to win more, and pitch deeper into games, and it seems he believes that will come. Just a week and a half ago, he went eight against the San Diego Padres, which, granted, is eight against the Padres. He swears he is not chasing velocity, and the gratification that delivers, at the expense of command. That the evidence suggests otherwise, he says, is not his concern.
"He's been there, dealing with adversity," his manager, Bruce Bochy, said. "And he came out of it."
So, fastball or no, Lincecum will take the ball Tuesday against the Colorado Rockies. He'll seek precision. Maybe, just a little, he'll seek velocity. He'll pitch off his fastball, whatever it is, and go where that takes him, wherever it is.
"I have to get back to being aggressive with my fastball," he said. "I have to get back to being me."
Maybe it's no more complicated than that. But it might be. That miasma can get pretty thick at times.
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