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Will the San Francisco Giants' Misuse of Tim Lincecum Cost Them the NL Pennant?

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Will the San Francisco Giants' Misuse of Tim Lincecum Cost Them the NL Pennant?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tim Lincecum proved what he needed to prove in the National League Division Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The San Francisco Giants' two-time Cy Young Award winner showed manager Bruce Bochy that his right arm still has enough bullets in it to be an asset in the postseason.

Bochy had a front-row seat for what Lincecum did coming out of the Giants' bullpen in Games 2 and 4 against the Reds, in which he pitched a total of 6.1 innings while allowing just one earned run on three hits and no walks. Lincecum's performance in Game 4, in particular, was a major game-changer, one that helped the Giants win a game they may have otherwise lost.

Bochy could have rewarded Lincecum by moving him into his playoff rotation as soon as the Giants punched their ticket to the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals. Some will say he had every excuse to after watching Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner struggle mightily in their starts.

Instead, Bochy took an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to the Lincecum situation. He announced before the start of the series, via the San Jose Mercury News, that both Lincecum and Zito were going to be available out of the bullpen for Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS.

At this point in time, we have to ask: Did he make a mistake? Has Bochy doomed the Giants by not shaking up his plans for Lincecum after his excellent work in the NLDS?

This question is fair game as the Giants find themselves in a 1-0 hole against the Cardinals after losing Game 1 on Sunday by a final of 6-4. That final was largely the result of yet another lousy performance from a San Francisco starting pitcher, as Bumgarner allowed six earned runs in 3.2 innings before departing.

And once again, Bochy found himself going to Lincecum to clean up the mess. He entered in the fifth inning and gave the Giants two hitless innings to help keep them in the game. The Giants were unable to make it count, but Bochy liked what he saw enough to declare Lincecum an option for more bullpen work in Game 2 on Monday night.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
Bruce Bochy may be playing it too cool in regards to his pitching staff.

"He is available," said Bochy of Lincecum in Game 2 after Sunday night's contest, via the Mercury News. "I can't say I won't use him, because the game may dictate that. But if I had to use him, he is probably the most resilient arm we have on the club, as far as bouncing back."

Bochy also said that he still considers Lincecum a possibility to start Game 4, which is scheduled to take place on Thursday in St. Louis. In a couple days' time, Bochy could very well decide to tab Lincecum to follow Matt Cain in Game 3—a decision that would surely have an "Order is restored!" vibe to it.

Not that a Game 4 start will be ideal for Lincecum, mind you. The Giants could be down 2-1, or maybe even 3-0, by the time Lincecum takes the mound for Game 4, meaning that his first start of the postseason could very well be his last start of the season if he doesn't pitch well.

Keep in mind that if Lincecum is tabbed to start Game 4, he'll be going up against a Cardinals' offense that is as hot right now as it's been in quite some time. And it will very much be in its element at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals had a .786 OPS at home this year, as opposed to a .731 OPS on the road.

In an alternate universe, Lincecum may have started Game 1 at AT&T Park three days after his 4.1-inning relief appearance in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Reds. A tall task, perhaps, but certainly not an impossible task for Lincecum if his manager is to be believed.

Seeing as how Lincecum has "the most resilient arm" on the club, asking him to start three days after throwing 55 pitches in a relief appearance would not have been asking a lot.

If not Game 1, Lincecum certainly could have been tabbed to start Game 2 on Monday on a full four days of rest. In this alternate universe of ours, it would be Lincecum taking the mound on Monday night with hopes of evening the series for the Giants.

Instead, they're turning to Ryan Vogelsong.

There's a chance Bochy will manage himself into a corner if he decides to use Lincecum out of the bullpen again in relief of Vogelsong. If Bochy does use Lincecum again, he'll be putting himself in a situation where using Lincecum out of the 'pen may be his only option. An "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach may cease to become a simple decision and become an obligation.

If this is what happens, Lincecum's body of work in the NLCS could end up consisting of a handful of relief appearances, rather than as many as two starts and one or two relief appearances on the side.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Tim Lincecum is being a good soldier this postseason, but you can rest assured he'd rather be starting.

Both the Giants and the Cardinals are living proof that killer bullpen work can make a huge difference in the postseason, but nobody should take their fine examples as an excuse to believe that it's better to have great relievers than it is to have great starters. Great relievers can stop trouble in its tracks, but great starters can stop trouble from ever arriving in the first place (the Detroit Tigers can vouch).

Stopping trouble from arriving in the first place is something the Giants' starting rotation hasn't been doing so well in these playoffs. Bumgarner has been a disaster in his two starts, and from the looks of things, he's just plain worn out. Elsewhere, Zito was highly unimpressive in the start he made in Game 4 against the Reds in Cincinnati. Even Cain has struggled in these playoffs, allowing six earned runs in 11.2 innings.

Oddly enough, the most impressive Giants starter to date has been Vogelsong, who allowed one run in five innings against the Reds in Game 3 of the NLDS. He had to battle to the tune of 95 pitches in his five innings of work, but he got the job done.

Because his rotation was such a huge question mark in the NLDS, nobody would have blamed Bochy if he had decided to shake things up for the NLCS. And since Lincecum and Vogelsong were the club's two best pitchers in the NLDS, perhaps they could have been the first ones out of the gate in Games 1 and 2 in San Francisco.

In such a scenario, Cain could have started Game 3 as planned, with Bumgarner going in Game 4 after a lot of extra rest—something that he desperately needs at this juncture with a tired arm. 

Hindsight is always 20/20, so it makes sense that a plan such as this looks rather appealing at the moment, with the Giants facing a 1-0 series deficit after their loss on Sunday. It certainly looks preferable to the situation they find themselves in now, where everything beyond Game 3 is a nebulous gray area.

This all traces, admittedly in a roundabout way, back to our original question: Will Bochy's lack of faith in Lincecum ultimately be the Giants' downfall in this series? Is the Giants' uphill battle already a battle they can't win?

I hesitate to say "yes" point-blank, if for no other reason than I've already thought the Giants to be dead once before in this postseason only to see them spring back to life. 

I also hesitate to say they're doomed because they're only down 1-0 in a series in which they have the home-field advantage. It's not time to panic yet.

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Still, I don't think I'm alone in thinking that what might have been in this situation is preferable to what really is. It's abundantly clear now that Lincecum is one of the best pitchers the Giants have going right now, if not the best. 

I don't think I'm alone in thinking that using Lincecum in relief could very well break the Giants' 2012 season altogether. The fact that he may only make one start in this series after he's pitched so well in the postseason borders on criminal, especially seeing as how Bochy could have made it so that Lincecum could have made two starts in this series if need be.

There's not a ton of room for error when it comes to this Cardinals team. Their offense is producing a lot like it was earlier in the season, which is a scary notion for every team left in the postseason field. While there are some holes in the club's starting rotation with Jaime Garcia gone and Adam Wainwright struggling, St. Louis' bullpen looks more than up to the task of cleaning up whatever mess the starters may cause.

Beyond their home-field advantage, the Giants don't have any clear advantage against the Cardinals. St. Louis' offense is better, as is its bullpen. The two clubs' starting rotations appear to be about even.

But they're only even, of course, because the Giants didn't overhaul theirs by inserting Lincecum into the equation. They could have made their starting pitching better than the Cardinals' starting pitching, and years of history tell us that an advantage in that department can go a long way in October.

If the Giants do lose the NLCS, it won't be entirely because of the Lincecum situation. The blame for it will be on Bochy, but he's not the one throwing the pitches or swinging the bats. This series will ultimately boil down to the club's talent, not Bochy's managerial decisions. 

If the Giants do lose the series, though, it will be way too easy to point to Lincecum as a guy who could have made a major difference—if only his manager had let him.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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