Sunday, August 26, 2007
About two months ago, I was sure that Tim Lincecum had bought himself a ticket back to Fresno. The Giants insisted otherwise. They said they were sticking with him, keeping the rookie in the big leagues in spite of four straight horrible starts, only one of which lasted longer than five innings.
They didn't even seem rattled by the vaguely feral look that appeared on his face a few times during a bruising in Milwaukee. Lincecum's expression screamed "not ready for prime time" to just about everyone watching, but his defenders saw something else. They noticed that, after giving up six runs in the first two innings, he pitched two more without commotion.
Lincecum said later that he realized that he had barely been breathing between pitches. He slowed things down, and his work no longer looked like the slop from the grill of a short-order cook.
But when manager Bruce Bochy said the club would consider skipping one of Lincecum's starts in the rotation, but not send him down to the minors, the vote of confidence had a very perfunctory ring to it. It also seemed myopic, part of the mind-set that kept Armando Benitez in a San Francisco uniform until he had proved beyond a microscopic doubt that he would torpedo games as often as he saved them.
But the Giants got this call right. They knew that Lincecum was not emotionally fragile and that the near-hyperventilation in Milwaukee was a fluke. More important, they understood that only Triple-A batters would learn anything from Lincecum's return to Fresno. Every lesson he really needed could be gained only in the majors.
A month after that awful start, Lincecum was back in Milwaukee, shutting out the Brewers on four singles over eight innings. He started off brilliantly, with a changeup that was almost impossible to read. The huge press corps in town for Barry Bonds' home-run chase joked about what would lead the news if Bonds homered and Lincecum pitched a no-hitter.
Today, he will pitch against the Brewers again, with a chance to finish off a three-game sweep for the Giants and to make up for an unfortunate ending to a breathtaking performance against the Cubs on Tuesday. After taking a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning, Lincecum gave up three straight hits, and the Giants lost 5-1.
But the first eight innings couldn't have been more different from the overwrought performance of two months earlier.
Pitching coach Dave Righetti speaks of the game like an opera fan who just saw a young Pavarotti. He said Lincecum didn't vary his pace according to the situation or what pitch he was setting up.
"He was just nice and smooth and easy," Righetti said. "It's a small, little rhythm that you can tell is just a much easier rhythm. It's not something you can explain."
The description sounded very much like Sandy Koufax and Jim Palmer, Hall of Famers who are often cited when people talk about Lincecum's potential. Righetti, though, would never make those comparisons. He was a bit chagrined that the nickname "the Franchise" ended up in the media this spring and stuck to Lincecum.
Righetti is pretty sure the Giants veterans made it up in jest, to shrink all the hype around the young man. Taken seriously, Righetti believed, it put undue pressure on Lincecum. (Aside from that, it's not a terribly engaging nickname.)
As the season went on, Righetti discovered a thick hide on the slender right-hander.
"I don't think his feelings get hurt too easily," Righetti said. "He's got kind of a rough edge to him, which I like."
Lincecum has absorbed a lot over the last few months. If he had stayed in the minors, he would not have been able to learn what Righetti calls "the finer points of holding runners." The sophistication, the runners' ability to determine precisely when and how to take off, isn't the same in Triple-A. He has also, after years of not swinging the bat, improved at the plate.
"He looks hitterish," Bochy said happily, watching Lincecum take some cuts in batting practice Saturday.
Then there are all the major-league cities he has seen for the first time, including the miserable, sweltering Atlanta. Even Fresno, in its most searing heat, can't match the soupy humidity of Georgia in August.
Lincecum's 23-year-old body is famously limber and resilient. He doesn't ice after games, doesn't wear a jacket when he gets on base and doesn't need many warm-up pitches before a start. (Bochy said Lincecum throws about 20, less than half the average.) But he took it on the chin from the Atlanta weather.
"At the end of the second inning, he was pale," Righetti said.
After the game, Lincecum said he had lost three pounds that night. He confirmed that on Saturday, saying he had actually stepped on the scale. "Whatever I lost, I was trying to regain by drinking a lot of fluids," he said. "It's not that much considering how much I was sweating."
But for a man who is officially listed as weighing 170 pounds, but appears significantly lighter, three pounds are a lot to lose in less than two hours. Bochy, unable to imagine how the lithe Lincecum felt that night, quipped: "For me, that would be like throwing a suitcase off the Queen Mary."
Righetti said he was surprised that Lincecum lasted five innings. "But I think he got the win, didn't he?" he asked.
Yes, he did. Righetti was right again.
I like that "rough edge" too. :)