Lincecum a Giant source of relief

DETROIT -- Moving from the starting rotation to the bullpen is not as easy as Tim Lincecum has made it look these past couple weeks. For one thing, you have to find a seat in the bullpen, which can be awfully crowded at this time of year.

"Sometimes if you've been sitting in a certain spot the whole game, they'll let you sit there but I just hope to be able to sit down," San Francisco Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "When you have like 13 dudes in the bullpen? You're just hoping for a seat. You're playing musical chairs down there. You're just waiting for some guy to get up and go to the bathroom and then you slide in there real quick."

So Lincecum has to wait his turn then? Prove himself as reliever first? Earn his pine time?

"Oh, we'll make room for him -- he can have my seat," Affeldt said. "If he keeps throwing like that, he can have all our seats. He can lay down on the bench if he needs to. We'll stand up."

Not a problem. Lincecum is bringing plenty of people to their feet as a reliever while returning batter after batter to their seat in the dugout. He took over with two out in the sixth inning and the tying run at the plate in San Francisco's 2-0 Game 3 victory over the Detroit Tigers and didn't allow a hit while striking out three in 2 1/3 innings. He has struck out eight batters without allowing a hit in 4 2/3 innings this World Series and has 17 strikeouts while allowing just three hits and one earned run in 13 relief innings this postseason.

The bullpen door swinging open hasn't been this exciting since Charlie Sheen was strutting to the mound with "Wild Thing" playing. Lincecum takes the mound with that long, stringy black hair, the funky delivery and the exploding fastball, and opponents suddenly have a whole new attitude toward middle relief.

"When you have a guy like Tim Lincecum coming out of the bullpen and giving you the type of innings he does, it's not like it gets easier [for the opponent]," Affeldt said. "Sometimes teams are thinking, 'Well, maybe if we can get to their pen early we'll have them.' But it doesn't get any easier when Timmy comes in."<.p>

That's the crucial thing in this postseason. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy hasn't restricted Lincecum to the overvalued, overhyped, overblown closer role. Teams now use their supposed best relievers only if they have a lead in the ninth inning, a situation when teams win 90 percent of the time anyway. The Giants not only are bringing in Lincecum earlier when the game is much more in doubt, they are using him for two innings and longer. He has pitched almost as much in relief as Madison Bumgarner has as a starter.

This could be an exciting concept for baseball, a return to the days when closers were firemen because they rushed to the mound in the seventh inning and earlier whenever smoke began to appear, not just when the insurance claims needed to be finalized. They didn't need any heavy metal closer music -- just the ring of the bullpen phone when their team was in trouble.

Unfortunately, Bochy says, Lincecum will go right back to the starting rotation next season. "He's a starter and that's where he's going next year."

That's good for Lincecum but it's too bad for baseball because it would be refreshing to see teams start using their best relievers earlier when the outcome is significantly more at risk. Imagine Lincecum taking over for a couple innings 70 or 80 times a season.

"That thought never really crossed my mind," Lincecum said when asked about what a permanent move to the bullpen would be like. "Right now, the bullpen role is for the World Series, and that's my mindset. I think that's everybody's mindset. I'm just going out there as a safety net of some kind."

A safety net? Having Lincecum in the bullpen is more like having a child-protective seat and an air-bag inside an armored car surrounded by a police escort and followed by an ambulance while driving through Kansas.

"When the lights come on in the biggest stage, he's shown everybody what he's truly about and he's thrown the ball unbelievably this whole postseason," Game 3 starter Ryan Vogelsong said. "And you've got to tip your hat to him because he could have been upset about going to the bullpen and not one second did you ever see that from him. He just went down there and came out firing BBs."

Unless the Tigers stage an unlikely comeback from an 0-3 deficit, Lincecum's bullpen role is probably over. But we can only hope his performance this postseason inspires some other teams to reevaluate their bullpen use. Although, granted, it might be hard for most teams to find a two-time Cy Young winner to fill the role.