SAN FRANCISCO -- Tim Lincecum handed the ball to manager Bruce Bochy and walked slowly off the mound, his team trailing the hated Los Angeles Dodgers 4-0 in the fifth inning, with runners on first and second. Both of them eventually scored, leaving the pitcher with a line of six runs allowed in 4⅓ innings.
That outing, three weeks ago, was Lincecum's worst in almost two months (with worse to come since then). Yet, when he reached the dugout that night, the sellout home crowd gave him a loud and supportive round of applause. Why? Because San Francisco fans love the guy.
They've loved him from the very start. In his 2007 major league debut, the fans gave the former first-round pick a standing ovation when he walked in from the bullpen after warming up before the game. They gave him a standing ovation after he struck out three batters -- and gave up a two-run home run -- in his first inning. And they gave him another standing ovation when he left the game in the fifth inning after allowing five runs.
"They love him; they really do," catcher Buster Posey said the day after that July 25 loss to the Dodgers. "Ever since I've been here, it's been the same every time. He goes out to the bullpen to warm up and he gets a big cheer from the fans already at the game. He's an easy guy to like. He's a good teammate. He's someone you always pull for."
And why wouldn't they? Lincecum arrived midway through 2007, which was Barry Bonds' last season. It was a low time for Giants fans. Bonds broke Hank Aaron's home run record that year, but the surrounding PED controversy was tarnishing it. Worse for fans, the Giants were continuing a downward spiral from a gut-wrenching 2002 World Series loss (damn you, Scott Spiezio!) to the Los Angeles Angels. Their .438 winning percentage in 2007 was their lowest in more than 20 years.
Then along came Lincecum, a heat-throwing kid less than a year out of college. After all the PED negativity, fans could identify with this long-haired 160-pounder who was so slight of frame he joked upon his big league arrival that the security guards probably thought he was the bat boy. In addition to an upper-90s fastball and a freakish delivery, he brought Giants fans something they could cheer without an ounce of guilt.
He was someone who looked like the rest of us (well, apart from the hair), yet threw like nobody else (except maybe Juan Marichal).
Lincecum won the NL Cy Young Award in his first full season in 2008, and won another Cy Young in 2009 to help the Giants back into contention. The next year, he pitched the Giants to their first World Series championship since the team moved to San Francisco, opening the postseason with a two-hit, 14-strikeout shutout and closing the postseason by striking out 10 to win the World Series clincher. He provided critical relief out of the bullpen when the Giants won again in 2012.
And he did it with a distinctive delivery that earned him the affectionate nickname "The Freak."
"He's definitely been one of the most exciting players I've ever seen with the Giants," San Francisco fan Jeff Taylor said outside the Giants ballpark before a recent game. "Because he's so small. When he used to throw 95 to 98, he was so small and he had the hair, and the personality. I remember them talking about players in the clubhouse and he'd be like eating a burrito before his start. And he had the whole weed thing he got busted for. He just seems like a normal kid with long hair.
"Plus, his mechanics, too. He has that torque thing, the crazy delivery. He's just a lot different than the big, burly, strong guys you usually see. Especially after the steroid era, to see this tiny little guy dominate like that was pretty crazy."
That velocity diminished, though, as did the domination. Lincecum struggled mightily the past two seasons, going a combined 20-29 with a 4.57 ERA, including a terrible 5.18 ERA in 2012. "The last few years, he's been so inconsistent," Taylor said.
Nonetheless, the Giants re-signed him to a two-year, $35 million contract before he could hit the free-agent market last offseason. Neither the Giants nor their fans -- there were "Timmy Don't Leave" signs in the stands during his final start of 2013 -- nor Lincecum himself wanted a San Francisco departure.
"I wanted redemption. I wanted to get back what I lost in years prior," Lincecum said. "Not stuffwise, but believing in myself, confidence, and taking that out on the field."
Until recently, Lincecum had provided strong signs of redemption this season. But even before that, and despite the bad years in 2012 and 2013, he was cheered so much at last winter's FanFest in San Francisco that even Lincecum was overwhelmed by it.
"The reception I got there was just enormous and a lot more than I expected," he said. "Not to give them the benefit of the doubt, but you're only as good as what you put out there. I beat myself up. I'm my biggest critic. When you don't do your job out there on the field, it's hard to believe they're going to believe in you that way. It's easy for me to turn on myself; why not them?
"But just the way they handled it -- and they've stuck with me through all these struggles -- and to find them with me still, it says a lot about the patience they have toward me and the true feelings they have toward me."
When Lincecum was starting out, the talk was that his unique mechanics, the long stride, the violent torque he put on his arm, inevitably would lead to injury, and soon. That hasn't happened. He has never been on the disabled list and has started at least 32 games in each of his six full seasons so far.
What has happened is the same thing that happens to every pitcher, though. His velocity has dropped. He used to throw 98 regularly. (The gun registered 100 in his big league debut.) Now he is around 90. His control wavered. There also were concerns that he was getting a little out of shape. (Hello, In-N-Out's Double-Double burgers!) All of which contributed to his decline.
After leading the league in strikeouts in each of his first three full seasons, Lincecum led the league in earned runs allowed in 2012, walked 90 batters and was sent to the bullpen for the postseason. He was somewhat better last year -- 10-14, 4.37 with a no-hitter -- but still a far cry from his Cy Young seasons. He allowed 44 home runs in 2012-13 after allowing just 39 combined in his first three full seasons.
The fall-off continued early this year. He left a May 7 loss with an ERA that pretty much matched the number on the back of his jersey: 5.55. There were serious questions about how much he might have left in his arm.
And then came the rebound.
From May 8 to late July, Lincecum seemed to find his groove, going 7-4 with a 2.24 ERA and holding batters to a .174 average. His solid pitching for much of June and July -- including another no-hitter and a save in an emergency relief appearance -- helped keep the Giants in contention when the offense and the rest of the rotation swooned.
He's struggled again since that start against the Dodgers, but still has learned to pitch with less.
"He's keeping the ball down and is throwing from the same arm slot," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "So now his pitches look similar. You don't know what's what. They're coming out of the same slot. And he's not overdoing it and he's throwing a lot more strikes. I think he's starting to find his own and learning to pitch with what he has."
According to Posey, the biggest factor is that Lincecum was making very good pitches when ahead in the count.
"It does seem like he has some deception going," he said. "Again, I think he's getting ahead of the hitters rather than getting behind and he's expanding the zone a little bit."
Lincecum's take is that he is more focused. He keeps himself in shape with a better workout routine -- "You need to keep care of your body or your tools aren't going to be working as well" -- and also studies opponents more. Before, he could simply rely on his stuff. Now, he relies more on his experience and intelligence.
"I'm just learning a little more by studying more between starts to just give myself a better go at it," he said. "I want to attack hitters and stick to my strengths, but it's also good to learn their weaknesses as well. [I'm] putting those two things together. I'm not trying to reinvent myself. People look at it more as a reinvention because my stuff isn't the same, but it's a learning game.
"It's slowing the game down a little bit. Things aren't as overwhelming as it has been in the last couple years when things got bad."
The Giants led the division by as many as 9½ games through the first couple of months this season, but they're now 4½ games behind the rival Dodgers and scuffling. After he earned that save on July 22, Lincecum's next start was the poor performance against Los Angeles. He followed that up with his shortest outing since 2012, squandering two leads and allowing five runs (four on two two-run homers) in less than four innings against Pittsburgh. He has just one quality start in his past four, going 0-2 with a 10.59 ERA.
In his most recent start, last week against the Royals, he allowed six runs and five stolen bases. His location was off, and he told reporters he got flustered by the baserunners and needed to slow the game down again.
Lincecum starts again on Sunday back home in San Francisco, and Giants fans will hope that these past couple of performances become just temporary blemishes in his return. That he truly does have his groove back. That he will lead them to another memorable postseason. That the beloved pitcher with two Cy Young Awards, two no-hitters and two World Series rings will continue to give them reason to cheer.
"It just continues," Lincecum said. "I've never really felt they haven't loved me. [Against the Dodgers] I didn't have my best stuff, but I come out of the game and I still get the applause. People still are waiting for me to do something good. It's nice to have that faith in you, knowing that when you go out there, they're expecting something special, too."