This time last week, it was hard to tell if Tim Lincecum was going to be a big part of the San Francisco Giants' postseason plans. We knew he was on the roster, but that was about all we knew, really.
A couple days ago, it didn't look like it mattered what kind of role Lincecum was cut out to play for the Giants in October. Sure, he made a nice relief appearance in Game 2 of their NLDS matchup against the Cincinnati Reds, but it didn't make a difference and the Giants appeared doomed after losing 9-0 to fall behind 2-0 in the series.
Now, the Giants have us all rubbing our chins and saying, "Hmmm..."
For the Giants, the script was flipped completely over on Wednesday in Cincinnati. Their bats awoke in an 8-3 pounding of the Reds that evened the series, and the man who got the win was none other than Lincecum.
He didn't start the game. He did, however, save it. Even if he didn't get a nice fancy "S" next to his name in the box score.
In the process, Lincecum erased all doubt that he can help this Giants team in the postseason. All they have to do now is make sure he gets another chance.
After throwing 55 pitches in 4.1 innings of one-run relief on Wednesday afternoon, it's doubtful that Lincecum will be available out of the pen for Thursday's Game 5. It will be up to staff ace Matt Cain to make it so the Giants don't need Lincecum, and one assumes he's chomping at the bit after letting the Giants down in Game 1.
If the Giants win Game 5, it will be because of Cain. And if the Giants win Game 5, everyone can look forward to more Lincecum in the National League Championship Series against either the Cardinals or the Nationals. Unlike the NLDS, we'll know well ahead of time that Lincecum will have a major role to play in the NLCS.
Any role will do for Lincecum given the way he's pitched in his two outings in the NLDS, logging a total of 6.1 innings while allowing just three hits, one earned run and, most importantly, no walks. He's struck out eight.
The numbers could motivate Giants manager Bruce Bochy to take an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to the Lincecum situation. Effectively, what he has at his disposal is a true shutdown long man and such pitchers are considerably more important in the postseason than they are in the regular season. There's no shame in being an October long man, nor is there shame in using one.
And Lincecum has taken his new role to heart in this series, going so far as to change both his mindset and his mechanics.
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated has the scoop:
After Game 2, when I remarked to Lincecum that his stuff looked so sharp in relief, he replied, "I had no choice." The inference was that by getting thrust into the middle of a game, Lincecum didn't have to worry about giving the Giants length or trying to get the same hitters out three or four times. Instead, he junked his famous windup, pitched exclusively out of the stretch, and went to full-on attack mode. He brought the same aggressive mentality and stuff to Game 4.
From the sound of things, you'd think that Lincecum was coming out of the bullpen blowing fastballs by hitters with his old velocity.
Except not. As pointed out by Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs, Lincecum's fastball averaged a shade over 90 miles per hour in his first relief appearance for the Giants in Game 2. In Game 4, his fastball averaged a shade below 90 miles per hour.
The key: Out of the 80 pitches he's thrown in his two appearances in the NLDS, only 33 have been fastballs.
In his extended outing in Game 4, Lincecum pitched primarily with his changeup. According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Info, 23 of Lincecum's 55 pitches on Wednesday afternoon were changeups. He used it to record six outs, including three strikeouts. Those were the most punch-outs recorded with his change since July.
As far as relievers go, good comps for what Lincecum brings to the table would therefore be guys like Fernando Rodney and Tyler Clippard. They're always looking to make hitters swing and miss over their changeups, and they succeed more often than not.
So, in just two games' worth of action out of the bullpen, Lincecum has forged a new style of pitching. That's good.
Know what's even better? That Lincecum has done all this out of the stretch.
The stretch was not Lincecum's friend during the regular season. He generally pitched fine out of the windup, but he typically wasn't long for a given game when he had to go into the stretch. His struggles out of the stretch definitely show up in his splits, as hitters managed a .248/.319/.421 line against Lincecum with nobody on and a .269/.370/.434 line against him with runners on.
Hitters didn't slug Lincecum to death with runners on base, but they did scratch and claw him to death with base hits and walks. The stretch typically signaled a skyrocketing of Lincecum's pitch count, something that over-obsessive gamblers probably took advantage of.
Now here we are in the postseason, and Lincecum is not only pitching well out of the stretch, but is pitching well while exclusively pitching out of the stretch.
If ever there was a way for him to conquer his stretchy demons...
With Lincecum having established something of a new style while also proving he can pitch effectively out of the stretch, Bochy needs to take a good look at Barry Zito, who opened the door for Lincecum to come in and save the Giants' bacon by pitching 2.2 ineffective innings on Wednesday.
Does Bochy really want Zito starting if the Giants make it to the NLCS?
Um, no. Probably not. My guess is that he'd rather start Lincecum, and I'm about 99 percent certain that my guess is 100 percent correct.
Yes, Lincecum will be in the Giants' starting rotation if they make it to the NLCS. In fact, I'd say he's a candidate to start Game 1 on Sunday. If so, that would also put him in line to start a potential Game 5, or maybe even Game 4 on three days' rest.
Regardless of where he's slotted, Bochy will feel safe in starting Lincecum twice in a potential seven-game series. There will be some doubt, sure, but when is there not doubt when it comes time for a manager to choose his pitchers in a postseason series?
And here's the thing about Lincecum: He need not be used only as a starter in the NLCS.
Should Tim Lincecum start Game 1 of the NLCS if the Giants make it that far?
Let's imagine a situation where the Giants find themselves in Game 7 of the NLCS. Now let's imagine a situation where there's trouble brewing early and Bochy needs to make a decision.
Who's he gonna call? Lincecum, of course.
There's precedent here. Bochy summoned Lincecum out of the bullpen in Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies. He didn't pitch particularly well, giving up two hits in just a third of an inning, but he was credited with a hold in what was a series-clinching 3-2 win for the Giants.
Bochy felt safe putting the club's postseason well-being in Lincecum's hands back then even after he had made two starts in the series, and it's not hard to imagine him doing so again if given the chance. Especially now that he knows Lincecum has it in him to be a shutdown reliever.
So talk about a transformation. As recently as a few days ago, Lincecum was a liability. Bochy didn't trust him as far as he could throw him.
Now, Lincecum is an asset. And a major one, at that.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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