Tim Lincecum: San Fran's 'pen pal

CINCINNATI -- As he walked down the dimly lit Great American Ball Park hallway, the hood of his gray postseason sweatshirt curved over his head, its sleeves cut off just above the elbow, Tim Lincecum looked like a man who was up to no good.

His skin was its typical shade of pasty white. His expressionless face revealed nothing. He walked with a purpose, seemingly to block out everyone and everything around him. Even after returning to the safe haven of the San Francisco clubhouse, when a group of player's wives yelled, "Yay, Timmy," he barely looked up, merely raising his left hand to acknowledge them and then moving on, never breaking his stride.

Minutes earlier, Lincecum's Giants had just defeated the Cincinnati Reds 8-3 to force a decisive Game 5 in the National League Division Series, and Lincecum's 4 1/3 innings of relief were a big reason why. But for Lincecum, there was no celebration. No smile. No public displays of overjoyed happiness. In other words, everything was normal. The only difference? It had finally been that way on the mound, too.

Before Wednesday, the 2012 season had been a nightmare for the 28-year-old. The same pitcher who won two Cy Young Awards in his first five seasons led the National League in losses and runs allowed this season. He issued the second-most walks and had the highest ERA in the NL (5.18) for any pitcher with at least 30 starts. His fastball had lost its velocity. His pitches had lost their location. And he had lost his confidence.

When the postseason started, Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a decision that was once unthinkable, sending Lincecum and his $18 million contract to the bullpen. Bochy would go with Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito as his third and fourth postseason starters. Not the once-unhittable Freak. Lincecum wasn't happy about the decision. But he understood. And he tried to stay ready.

"I didn't really have a say in the situation," Lincecum said. "I can go out there and tell him I'm ready to start, but in the end it's his say. And when it's postseason he's going to pick the lineup. I can only be ready for when he calls my name or whatever he wants me to do."

That call came in the fourth inning on Wednesday afternoon, a direct-dial from the visiting dugout to the visiting bullpen at Great American Ball Park. A Giants offense that had scored four runs in its first three games had finally came to life, exploding for three runs in the first two innings, and Bochy needed somebody -- anybody -- to get the outs he needed to put the Reds away. He had started with Zito, who didn't last beyond the third inning. He mixed and matched with George Kontos and Jose Mijares for an inning, but they were temporary matchup Band-Aids. What he needed was his one-time ace.

"I knew he would play a huge role in this," Bochy would say later.

So along Lincecum came, jogging in from the right-field bullpen. With each step, catcher Hector Sanchez watched closely. Everything seemed right. The body language. The attitude. When Sanchez looked into Lincecum's eyes, he had a good feeling.

"You could see it in his face," Sanchez said. "When he comes in, he had that determination. He's like, 'I got this guy. I'm going to finish this game.' I could see it in his face."

At that point, the Giants led 3-2. The Reds had runners at first and second with two outs and one of its hottest hitters, Ryan Ludwick, at the plate. Five pitches later -- the fifth a nasty slider -- and Ludwick was headed back to the bench with the bat in his hand and the inning over. In the top of the next inning, the Giants would tack on two more runs. In the seventh they would score three more.

All the while Lincecum dominated. He didn't think. He didn't worry. He didn't even use his windup. Pitching exclusively from the stretch, he just threw.
"You're just there to get outs until they tell you that you're through," Lincecum said. "I just wanted to do my job."

Though the job was far different than what he had been accustomed to, the final results were pre-2012 impressive: 4 1/3 innings, two hits, one run, six strikeouts. Forty-two of his 55 pitches would go for strikes.

When asked what he had expected from the erratic Lincecum when he entered the game, San Francisco's Buster Posey didn't hesitate: "That."

But perhaps an implosion was just as likely. Consider: Lincecum's 4 1/3 innings of relief was longer than he was able to last in six of his starts in 2012. His six strikeouts were more than he had in 15 of his starts.

When it was all over, Lincecum retreated to the clubhouse to a sea of congratulations from his teammates. He said he felt proud that he was finally able to contribute and help his team win, especially in such an important game. But that really, this wasn't about him. It was about the team, about responding to outfielder Hunter Pence's pre-game plea to play for one another, to do everything you can to try and extend the season.

"It was a great feeling to be able to do my job," Lincecum said. "But that's just an added benefit. What I was thinking about today is just trying to get to tomorrow. That was my mindset."

Lincecum's extended effort in relief not only helped the Giants win on Wednesday, but it gave relievers Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo a day of rest before Thursday's crucial Game 5. The Giants will start the man who replaced Lincecum as the team's ace, Matt Cain.

Lincecum's success also meant something else: The superstitious pitcher will have to spend yet another day in the same faded jeans and maroon T-shirt that he wore to the park prior to the last two Giants victories. With one important exception.

"I think underwear falls into that category," Lincecum said. "But that's about it. I'm wearing the same thing. All we want to do is win. Find a way."