On Saturday (Sept. 22), the San Francisco Giants clinched the NL West division title, their second in three seasons.
Strangely, Tim Lincecum was not in the Giants' clubhouse to join in the celebration. As CSN Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly reported, Lincecum had been sent home early since he was slated to start Sunday's day game.
Once the Giants clinched with an 8-4 win over the San Diego Padres, Lincecum was scratched from Sunday's start and pushed to Tuesday. He was invited back to AT&T Park to celebrate with teammates, but congestion around the ballpark made that impossible.
Yet it was somehow appropriate that Lincecum wasn't in the clubhouse as the Giants celebrated their division title, because it could be argued that San Francisco won the NL West in spite of him.
That's probably harsh, but this season has been Lincecum's worst as a major leaguer. His 4.91 ERA is second to last in the National League among qualifying starting pitchers. And that's with significant improvement from him since the All-Star break.
During the first half of the season, Lincecum was a "What's wrong with him?" story every five days as diminished velocity and poor location allowed opposing hitters to sit on his fastball.
Lincecum was extremely hittable in his first 18 starts, allowing 103 hits in 96.1 innings. His record was 3-10 and his 6.42 ERA was the worst in MLB. Murmurs of taking Lincecum out of the starting rotation were getting louder. In his final two appearances before the All-Star break, Lincecum allowed 14 runs (13 earned) and 16 hits in 6.2 innings.
Whether he received some much-needed rest during MLB's midseason hiatus or the four-day break allowed him to tweak his mechanics as necessary, Lincecum has been a much different pitcher during the second half of the season.
In 13 starts, Lincecum compiled a 7-4 record and 3.06 ERA. He's allowed 71 hits in 79.1 innings. Interestingly, he's struck out fewer batters, averaging one per inning. But his pitches have had better movement, avoiding the fat part of the strike zone against opposing hitters.
Lincecum has been especially good in September, going 3-0 with a 2.52 ERA in four starts and striking out 10.1 batters per nine innings. There's no longer any talk about the Giants taking him out of the starting rotation.
Where Lincecum will line up in the Giants' postseason rotation is still up for question. Manager Bruce Bochy has announced that all five starting pitchers will be on the Giants' roster during the divisional round. (That's great news for Barry Zito, who was left off the roster for all three of their playoff series in 2010.)
Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner starting the first two games of the NLDS for the Giants are a given. Since teams only need a four-man rotation during a playoff series, that leaves two spots for Lincecum, Zito and Ryan Vogelsong.
But the dilemma for Bochy appears to be whether or not to use Zito or Vogelsong as the fourth starter. Vogelsong's 5.56 ERA has to give Bochy some doubt. If he wasn't struggling, Vogelsong would be the likely choice over Zito for the rotation.
However, there are no such questions for Lincecum. He's finishing the season on a strong note, allowing three runs or fewer in his past six starts. In 13 appearances since the All-Star break, Lincecum has given up four runs or more twice. He will be the Giants' No. 3 starter in the postseason.
Is Lincecum capable of pitching as well as he did during San Francisco's 2010 run to a World Series championship? During that postseason, he went 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six appearances with 43 strikeouts and nine walks in 37 innings.
To say earlier in this article that the Giants may have won the NL West title despite Lincecum's struggles wasn't accurate. He was a significant contributor in the second half of the season and picked the rotation up when pitchers like Vogelsong began to falter.
If not for Lincecum's turnaround, the NL West could possibly have come down to the season's final series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But it was nowhere close to that.
The Washington Nationals will surely disagree with the following statement. But with Lincecum pitching as well as he has during the season's second half, it could be argued that the Giants have the best top three pitchers in their rotation among the NL playoff field.
That couldn't have been said in July when Lincecum looked like one of the worst pitchers in baseball. His resurgence might be the difference in the Giants winning their second World Series in three seasons.
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