Behold Tim Lincecum, in all his glory
SAN FRANCISCO — Watching Tim Lincecum pitch is the best show in baseball.
I declared that in my final Mailbag column (which has since given way to the Inbox) last December, and that feeling was reaffirmed Saturday as the diminutive Giant struck out 13 in eight shutout innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In a galling outcome for San Francisco, Arizona won, 2-0, with a pair of ninth-inning runs. But at least the Giants left the park knowing that their ace’s skills remained intact.
“He is so big for this ballclub. That’s no question,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s going to make us a better club having him healthy.”
Not that the Giants ever doubted Lincecum, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. But a handful of national baseball writers had expressed skepticism about the right-hander. Some cited scouts who pointed out that Lincecum’s velocity had diminished. Others considered the 49 2/3-inning increase in his workload last year over 2007 and whispered that his arm had weakened.
Lincecum knows this cynicism well.
“People are going to say what they want,” he said. “That’s been my whole life. People are saying I”m going to do something and I don’t. That just gives me more motivation to want to come out and get better. My expectations, of course, are the highest of anybody’s — [higher] than fans, my dad; I want to do better than any of them want me to. You try to live up to your own expectations; sometimes that can be tough. So you try to take a step back and make the game simple again. That’s what I tried to do today.”
What was simple wouldn’t have been possible without the subtle. By studying videotapes, Lincecum noticed that his left (front) foot was landing three inches closer than usual to the right-handed batter’s box. This flaw muted his fastball and threw his other deliveries askew. Steering his motion more directly toward home plate yielded the desired effect.
Improved health also helped. Bronchitis bothered Lincecum in Spring Training, and a queasy stomach nagged him as recently as this week.
But the Lincecum who lasted a combined 8 1/3 innings while compiling a 7.56 ERA in his previous two starts was gone. He was replaced by the Lincecum whose fastball reached 95 mph as late as the seventh inning — though, as always, he complemented his heat with his arresting curveball and sweeping change-up.
The fans, who ended an otherwise glorious afternoon by showering boos upon San Francisco’s hitters and relievers, released their pent-up Timmy-love early and often. They sounded appreciative after Lincecum struck out the final two batters to end both the first and second innings. But after he repeated this feat in the third inning, the crowd’s roar was even louder and more triumphant — as if spectators had just received undeniable confirmation that their hero had returned.
Lincecum ended three of the next five innings with strikeouts, giving fans ample opportunity to cheer in anticipation when the count reached two strikes. They did so without prompting from the scoreboard — a welcome development and an improvement over 2008, when two-strike counts caused an oafish “Make Some Noise”-type exhortation to appear on the Big Mitsubishi.
As is often the case with Lincecum, his effectiveness began with his pregame warmup — which he didn’t even begin until after the National Anthem was rendered. “Usually I try to use my bullpens to get loose and get a rhythm,” Lincecum said. “But today I made a little bit better point of trying to throw strikes as well as trying to get a rhythm. Make it more of a game-like situation.”
– Chris Haft