If you’ve ready any of my baseball posts around these parts, you may know that Tim Lincecum fascinates me. He fascinates me when he does well, and he also fascinates me when he’s not doing well at all. He’s the most charismatic ball player the San Francisco Giants have had since Barry Bonds. When he’s on the television, you don’t turn away, you don’t get up to get something to drink, and you don’t empty your bladder.Well, except this season. You know that old Sesame Street segment, “One of these things is not like the other?” If you take a look at Lincecum’s ERA from year to year, this season stands out like a sore thumb.
And because of his mostly down 2012, Bruce Bochy stuck him in the bullpen as the long reliever in this NLDS series against the Cincinnati Reds. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were easy choices to start the first two games of the playoffs for the Giants. They were the two best starting pitchers for the team all season long. But who would start games three and four was a mystery until Bochy named Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito the starters. If you used the regular season as the indicator, Ryan Vogelsong was the right choice (and he proved Bochy right by throwing a tough game Tuesday). Vogelsong was consistent for 75% of the season and was the ERA leader up until the last quarter of the season.But that last slot was up for grabs. If you looked at prior playoff performance, Lincecum helped pitch his team to a World Series championship in 2010. But Barry Zito was no slouch in the playoffs either, going 4-3 with a 3.25 ERA in five previous playoff series’. Going by the regular season, most regular statistics would show that Zito had the better year (especially meaningless W-L record), but if you looked under the hood, it was pretty much even. When Lincecum was good, he could be really good. But when he was bad, he was really bad. Zito was usually just average all season long. For Bochy, it was a pick your poison type of situation.
On Wednesday, Barry Zito took the hill and proved Bochy wrong. He threw just 2 2/3 innings, giving up two earned runs on four walks and four hits. Even though his stuff looked good, he seemed to be rattled by the tighter than usual strike zone. The four games have seen four completely different strike zones. It caused Zito to nibble too much. Yet, it still worked out for Bochy.
(Bochy is the king of the hunches and the king of familiar and repetitive. After saying Tuesday night that Buster Posey would catch Barry Zito, he changed his mind Wednesday morning and put Posey at first and Hector Sanchez behind the plate. It meant that he had to sit Brandon Belt who is the team’s second leading on base guy. It goes against all baseball rules to not only sit one of your best offensive players, but to also make your defense worse because of it. Belt is near great at first base and Posey is much better than Sanchez behind the plate. They made themselves worse defensively at two positions with the change. It was pure Bochy.)
Tim Lincecum entered the game with two outs in the fourth inning after George Kontos and Jose Mijares relieved Zito. He immediately struck out the white-hot Ryan Ludwick. He went on to throw four more innings, giving up one run on two hits and striking out six. The easiest way to describe the performance is that he looked like the Lincecum of old. He looked like Big Time Timmy Jim.
Part of the reason why Lincecum is beloved by the San Francisco Giants fan base is because you can tell whether he’s going well or not based on his body language. There’s no bullshit with Lincecum. He wears a hoodie that swallows him and makes him look like he’s fifteen. When he’s on the mound, he seemingly rolls his eyes when he does something that is un-Lincecum-like. And when he pitches like he expects himself to, he pumps his fist and screams (sometimes with colorful language). It’s his charisma that makes Giants fans pull for him.
Lincecum’s shutdown of the Reds allowed the Giants bats to wakeup for the first time all series. When they beat the Reds on Tuesday, it was a classic Giants performance. On Wednesday, they out-Reds’d the Reds. The team hit three home runs including Angel Pagan’s laser to start off the game. Gregor Blanco followed with two-run jack in the second. And with the Giants up just 6-3 in the seventh, Pablo Sandoval hit a mammoth two-run shot to make the game 8-3, which would end up as the final score.
The Reds will start Mat Latos who pitched in relief in game one after Reds’ ace Johnny Cueto was injured and had to leave the game. He’ll face Matt Cain, the Giants’ ace who struggled in his only start so far. The Giants have a chance to pull off the unthinkable. After losing the first two games in their park, they are one win away from sweeping the last three games of the series in Great American Ball Park and advancing to the NLCS. It wouldn’t be the Boston Red Sox of 2004. But it would still be miraculous. And the Giants are countin’ on that miracle.