MLB: New role for Giants’ Lincecum: Ace for a contender
By Andrew Baggarly
San Jose Mercury News
HOUSTON — Before Tim Lincecum became "The Freak," an unimaginative nickname that stuck thanks to a Sports Illustrated cover, his teammates called him something else.
OK, so "The Franchise" isn't original, either. But for the Giants in 2010, it's definitely the more appropriate handle.
Lincecum faces a whole new responsibility Monday when he takes the ball for the Giants' season opener at Houston. For the first time in his brief career, he is leading a team that expects to make a playoff run.
The Giants are built around pitching, and it starts with their lithe, lethal little gymnast on the mound.
"Last year I didn't do so well in that opener," said Lincecum, who lasted three innings against the Milwaukee Brewers. "I want to get that back. I want to get off to a better start."
Lincecum didn't let a bad start derail a season in which he won his second consecutive Cy Young Award. But it wasn't easy at the end, either. With the Giants a late factor in the wild-card race, Lincecum had some starts that weren't very Timmy-like. Add in poor run support, and the Giants were just 7-7 in his outings after the All-Star break.
"And some of the starts he won, he won because of his name," catcher Bengie Molina said. "He wasn't always feeling the best. He wasn't throwing as hard, and his breaking ball wasn't as good. He was beating them because the hitters knew who they were facing.
"Obviously, I'm not trying to put Timmy down. Everybody knows how nasty he is. Even if he doesn't have his good stuff, he knows how to pitch a good game."
Nobody doubts that Lincecum has established himself as one of the premier pitchers in the major leagues, able to give his team a chance even when he isn't feeling strong. His changeup might be the best in the game. He worked on his two-seam fastball and two versions of his curve this spring, signaling that he plans to mix his pitches a little better.
His fastball was back in the low 90s in his final tuneup against minor league hitters Wednesday. He enters the season looking fit, clearheaded and ready.
But there are questions about his stamina.
While Giants manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti didn't jot down any "Timmy Rules" last season, they made a conscious effort to limit Lincecum's workload.
They noticeably eased up on their ace, only once allowing him to exceed 125 pitches in a start. His season high was 127. A year earlier, Lincecum exceeded 125 pitches three times, including a 138-pitch outing.
Bochy and Righetti also sought to give Lincecum extra rest more often last season. Of his 32 starts, 15 were on more than the standard four days of rest. The Giants had Lincecum skip a turn while the club was contending in September, too.
A year earlier, the Giants weren't so cautious. Even though the team was buried under .500, Lincecum made 21 of his 34 starts on regular rest.
It will be tougher to ease up on Lincecum this season, should the Giants position themselves for a playoff run.
And if he is lined up to appear in August road series at Atlanta, Philadelphia and St. Louis, expect those questions about pitching in hot weather to resurface, too.
Bochy already is seeking to play down expectations. He thought long and hard when asked whether it's fair to expect Lincecum to perform up to the level of the previous two seasons.
"Wow, what a question," Bochy said. "You know, that's an extremely high standard he has set. With the bar as high as he's set it, it would be asking a lot. Don't get me wrong, Timmy is capable. He showed it by winning another Cy Young. But it's going to take the other four starters coming through for us, too.
"It's not just Timmy. We can't put it all on him."