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For more than eight months, as the pain in his left hip faded and the old feeling he hadn’t felt in years returned, Tim Lincecum turned into more of an enigma than he’d ever been. General managers wondered how he looked. Scouts gossiped about how they’d heard from their best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend that they saw Lincecum at the 31 Flavors and his fastball wasn’t even hitting 85 mph. All the while, not a word from Lincecum. After years of confounding baseball as to how he coaxed such brilliance out of a body that looked incapable of harnessing it, now Lincecum was keeping them on edge with his silence.
“Private is the way I live my life and have tried to,” Lincecum told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday in his first public comments since the 2015 season ended. “It helps me feel comfortable. It’s kind of like a scientist going to work on something in his garage and not unveiling it until he’s ready to. That’s kind of what it feels like.”
Finally, he’s ready. Tim Lincecum, version 2.5, is set to unveil himself in front of personnel from almost every major league team Friday at 2:30 p.m. local time at Scottsdale Stadium. His left hip, which Dr. Marc Philippon repaired by shaving down bone to allow greater range of motion and reattaching a partially torn labrum, feels normal when he lands and will allow him to comfortably take the extra-long stride that helped catapult him to two National League Cy Young awards. His arm, overtaxed last year because his delivery was out of whack, is throwing fastballs at 91 mph during bullpen sessions, and he expects another mile or two per hour from the adrenaline of in-game competition.
More than anything, Lincecum, 31, is ready to make the second half of his career every bit as memorable as the first half. Even if the high-90s fastball is forever gone, the post-velocity incarnation of Lincecum never got to pitch on a healthy hip, and he wants the trials and travails of the last four seasons to give way to someone more ready for his evolution.
“Back in my early 20s, I felt like I was invincible,” Lincecum said. “Now I kind of have an idea of the tools I get to work with and how to stay within myself and at the same time be dynamic. I want to be explosive with certain parts of the body and not be apprehensive. It has taken time to get there.”
Longer than Lincecum would’ve liked, frankly, but he understood the danger in rushing back from hip surgery. For players reliant on their body’s movement patterns to generate force, a hip injury is every bit as bad as an arm injury. The hips are the nexus of good movement, and as the labrum in Lincecum’s left hip “whittled away strength and durability,” he said, the effect of the injury sent his fastball velocity tumbling to 84 mph and rendered him ineffective.
It was a culmination of four years of frustration. Ever since Lincecum sprouted into a 5-foot-11, 170-pound marvel, he’d never understood failure. Compounding that with pain made the ineffectiveness that much more intolerable.
“Pretty rough, to be honest with you, because I didn’t know which days were gonna be the good days and which were gonna be the bad ones,” Lincecum said. “Some days my hip would bite at me. Some days it would be fine. But I didn’t have a lot of stability and strength in it. I wasn’t able to sustain the end of my motion, when my foot hit. It felt very erratic, very wild. It didn’t feel like much of a drive. It felt like I was jumping. That’s where I lost it all. The power was lost in my legs, and it didn’t drive through my hips, my mid-back and up into my shoulder. I was throwing a lot with my arm.”
Now, Lincecum is as strong as he’s been in years. A few days ago, on a whim, he started walking on his hands and went about 20 feet. He stopped, spun and hand-walked his way back to the point from which he started. Perhaps it was boredom of the day-after-day grind, which recently has grown into a typical starter’s routine. Every fifth day, he has thrown six 15-pitch innings with five- to seven-minute breaks between. He’ll throw bullpen sessions on off-days. He wants to tell whatever team that signs him he’s ready to go now.
Lincecum said he will need a few minor league starts to acclimate himself to live games before he’s ready for the major leagues, but he doesn’t anticipate that taking long. He wants to join a rotation. He wants to join it soon. And he’s open to wherever it is, even if that means the San Francisco Giants, the only team for whom Lincecum has played, aren’t the landing spot.
“Where I end up is where I’ll end up,” Lincecum said. “They already have six starters. I’ve got to just look out for me, and if they’re the No. 1 piece in the puzzle when it comes down to decision time, I’ll be excited to go back.”
He’s just excited to get back period, to show those who have waited that all the tinkering in the figurative garage unleashed something new. With his father, Chris, playing Doc Brown – “I’m more like McFly,” Linececum said – they have fiddled with every last biomechanical trigger to hone his fastball, curveball, changeup, slider and cutter. “This is the best curveball I’ve seen in four years,” Chris said.
It took time, but his son started to agree, and last week, working out at the back fields of the Giants’ minor league complex, Lincecum announced, rather unexpectedly, “I’m gonna do this. Five days from now.”
And just like that, Friday’s showcase was on. Lincecum knows where he is because Chris is there to be a truth-teller, not a cheerleader. Now it’s up to the judgments of the executives and the scouts to see where Lincecum will end up this year and whether what’s being unveiled really is the new version baseball would be better for having.