Lincecum's revival in 'pen could net Game 4 start
If the right-hander isn't needed in Game 3, he'll likely get the call on Thursday
ST. LOUIS -- Two days prior to the first pitch of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, Bruce Bochy still wasn't announcing who would be making the start for the Giants because ..."... Because I don't have to right now," the San Francisco manager said late Tuesday afternoon, referring to MLB protocol. "That's my biggest reason." Bochy's second-biggest reason appears to be his preference to give the assignment to Tim Lincecum. The erstwhile rotation rock's availability, however, remains dependent on whether he has to come to the rescue in Wednesday's Game 3 should Matt Cain take an early knockout on the chin. Lincecum is hardly the first struggling pitcher to find a new gear when shuttled to the bullpen. But he has dramatically furthered that trend after having gone 10-15 during the regular season with an ERA of 5.18 -- compared to the 2.98 mark through his first five seasons.
The revival could earn Lincecum a return to the rotation. Thursday's assignment will go either to Lincecum, who made his last start on Sept. 30, or to Barry Zito, the revived lefty who has started 12 consecutive Giants wins. However, Zito contributed little to the latest triumph, an 8-3 win over the Reds in Game 4 of the NL Division Series in which he went 2 2/3 innings and allowed four hits and four walks.Hence, not only the Giants' starting pitcher, but their starting battery for Game 4 remains a mystery. If it's the lefty, Hector Sanchez will be behind the plate as Buster Posey takes a shift at first base. Sanchez has caught 26 of Zito's 34 starts, and has also caught Lincecum (16) more often than has Posey (15). If those two pitchers have a preference for the Giants' No. 2 catcher, it is only marginally reflected in their performances; both have ERAs only slightly lower with Sanchez than with Posey. "TBA is where we're at," Bochy said. "We'll make an announcement after the game [Wednesday] night. I'll just wait until that game is over to name that starter." If Cain goes at least six innings, it will be enough to place the game in the hands of the Giants' regular endgame relay of short relievers, eliminating the need for Lincecum. So you can pretty much anticipate Lincecum getting the ball on Thursday: Cain didn't work through the sixth in only six of his 32 regular-season starts. If he is asked to start, Lincecum sounded confident of being able to pitch deep into the game, even though he has totaled only 8 1/3 innings in three relief appearances since going six innings on Sept. 30 in San Diego in his 33rd and final start of the season. "If they needed me to, absolutely," Lincecum said in response to putting up the necessary innings. Postseason baseball has increasingly become relief-pitching baseball, and Bochy values the extra ingredient Lincecum has given his bullpen. A lot of attention had been paid to the fact the Giants' vaunted rotation had not provided a quality start through six postseason games and was averaging 4 1/3 innings until Ryan Vogelsong ended the skid with his seven-inning turn on Monday night. Lincecum picked up a lot of that slack, and his efforts are reflected in the stellar work of other relievers, whom Bochy has been able to use when he wanted to, not when he needed to. "He's been amazing in the 'pen," left-hander Jeremy Affeldt said of Lincecum. "I think he had a lot to do with us beating the Reds. He saved the 'pen a couple of times, because we've thrown a lot. Before, we didn't have a guy like that, who can save the rest of the 'pen. All year, we've pretty much just had short relievers. To now have a guy who can pick us up has been really, really big." And if Lincecum doesn't start now?
"He could be the key in this series, too," Affeldt said. "He's been very, very effective."If permitted by circumstances, Bochy also sounded eager to see if Lincecum's relief success -- one run and three hits in those 8 1/3 innings, with one walk and nine strikeouts -- translates into a start. "Timmy has thrown the ball great," said Bochy, who has not been surprised by that development because Lincecum, twin Cy Young Awards notwithstanding, accepted the boot from the postseason rotation. "The first time we brought it up to him, he was all in on it. He said, 'Whatever you want me to do to help this team move on, I want to do that. If it's in the bullpen, let's do it.' "He's had a great attitude about this. And I think that's one of the reasons why he's thrown so well. He didn't hesitate when he said, 'I'm good with that.' You have to accept your role to be good at it, just like a role player during the season. A pitcher, he wants to start, and he's in the bullpen, he's probably not going to be content with that. But Timmy wants to do whatever he can to help us win." If Lincecum doesn't have to do anything to help the Giants try to win on Wednesday, he should get the chance to help from the first inning on Thursday.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.