New pitch returns Lincecum to dominance

SAN FRANCISCO – Amid the panda hats and strap-on beards, amid the orange rags and bobbing kayaks, amid a half-decade of hardball torture, Tim Lincecum(notes) – their Timmy – bounded up the dugout stairs and the locals stood and cheered.

He is their kind of guy; a little runty, built like an underdog, all floppy hair and wicked intentions.

As far as playoff debuts by former Cy Young Award winners go, his would be the second-best in 30 hours. Yet, they hoisted him into one final inning, slain as they were by this Game 1 drama and his refusal to yield to it Thursday.

And so as the league’s most feared closer straddled a bullpen mound and joined them as witnesses, their Timmy plowed through the ninth inning, 14 more pitches, the last causing Derrek Lee(notes) to bow his head as if in submission.

While his string of Cy Youngs will end at two, he carries the pedigree still. Though he skidded through an oh-for-August, he is again every bit "The Freak."

Carrying the San Francisco Giants’ strategy to pitch first and find a run somewhere, Lincecum struck out 14 Atlanta Braves, begrudged them two hits and made a single run – a gift from the Braves and an umpire – stand for a 1-0 victory.

The closest thing to perfection this side of Roy Halladay(notes), Lincecum’s work in this National League Division Series was extraordinary for its precision over 119 pitches, for its fearlessness in riding a fastball that isn’t what it once was, and for its commitment to a pitch he reinvented barely three weeks before.

Now, the Braves’ offense, like the Giants’, would not be mistaken for anything particularly threatening. In fact, the starting lineups together held two .300 hitters and no one in the NL’s top 15 in home runs or RBIs. But, everybody swung reasonably hard, a puncher’s chance their only chance, and the margin for error was nonexistent.

Derek Lowe(notes), the Braves’ right-hander who’d won his last five regular-season starts, gave up a tainted run – Buster Posey(notes) was thrown out attempting to steal second base and was determined to be safe by umpire Paul Emmel, and scored when a two-hopper skipped under third baseman Omar Infante’s(notes) glove – and lost.

So, that nonexistent.

And Lincecum, who’d won five of his last six starts, and who’d struck out 23 batters in 20 innings since re-gripping his slider, made it 37 strikeouts in 29 innings including the October start.

“It changes him,” said Lee, who struck out three times.

“It makes him a different animal,” said Matt Diaz(notes), who was the fourth of five consecutive strikeouts in the first and second innings.

“All of a sudden, it’s in the catcher’s mitt,” said Brooks Conrad(notes), who whiffed twice.

On a mid-September day in San Diego, when he was searching for the feel of his breaking pitch, Lincecum tried something new in a game of catch with Matt Cain(notes). Rather than lay his fore and middle fingers between two seams, where the ball is smooth, he placed them across four seams and let it fly. The ball responded. It darted down and to the left, and he found he could throw it hard, just a few ticks below his fastball.

Feathered in with his fastball and what already was one of the game’s best changeups, the slider soon became a go-to weapon, and hitters swung over it, and Lincecum was winning again, and the Giants were holding off the Padres and winning the West. Fed the Padres to end the season and the Braves to begin the postseason, Giants pitchers haven’t allowed a run since the fourth inning Saturday. They all have their stories, Lincecum’s starting when he turned the baseball a quarter-inch in his hand.

“It just kinda developed,” he said.

Along came the Braves, who’d seen Lincecum plenty and heard about his fresh pitch, but in the batters’ box couldn’t distinguish it from his fastball, not amid Lincecum’s unique mechanics. What they saw was a black No. 55, then left ear, then glove, then hair, then left leg, then right arm, all before ball. And then it was too late.

Six months before they’d been no-hit by Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez(notes).

“We might have hit more balls hard in the no-hitter,” Diaz said. “His slider is new. It’s harder and more frequent than he threw. You can’t see it out of his hand.

“On my first strikeout, the second strike was a slider I missed by maybe a millimeter. The third I missed by two feet. And they looked like the same pitch.”

Lee, who’d batted .375 against Lincecum in 17 prior plate appearances, merely shrugged at the thought of hitting what one can’t see.

“We were informed of it,” he said of the slider, “but I have never seen him throw it like that.”

In a clubhouse quiet but for the clubbies who pounded dirt from spikes, their wire brushes working feverishly, the Braves rued their several misplays and agreed Posey was out and therefore should never have scored. But, mostly they granted they’d had little chance against Lincecum, who’d allowed three baserunners and not an inch more.

Of their 14 strikeouts, all but two were swinging. They were sure it was there, sure they could hit it, and then it wasn’t, and they couldn’t.

The ninth inning came and Lincecum’s pitching coach, Dave Righetti, asked him how he was doing. Lincecum was at 105 pitches. The sound man was cuing up “Enter Sandman,” Mariano Rivera’s(notes) ninth-inning theme song.

“I said I was feeling fine,” Lincecum said. “So that was pretty much it.”

So Lincecum, their Timmy, their little wisp of an ace, went back to work.

One more time.

With wicked intentions.