Lincecum leads strong Giants rotation into NLCS

Tim Lincecum was dominating in Game 1 against Braves, allowing 2 hits and striking out 14.
Tim Lincecum was dominating in Game 1 against Braves, allowing 2 hits and striking out 14.
Posted: October 15, 2010

WHEN SAN Francisco tied Game 3 of the National League Division Series in the ninth inning on Sunday, Tim Lincecum jumped so high in the Giants' Turner Field dugout that it looked like he might hit his head. It was an image that summed up these improbable Giants and that improbable game.

It looked like the Braves would never get a hit. And certainly not a run.

Then, suddenly, Atlanta led the game, 2-1, and was an out from a 2-1 series lead, a series that had really been dominated by Giants pitchers, just like they dominated the final month of the season.

The Giants won that night and the series the next night. And it was all about their pitching.

As dominant as the Phillies' Big Three was in September and the first few days of October, the Giants' Big Three might have been better. Lincecum was 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA. He struck out 52 and walked eight. Jonathan Sanchez was 4-1 with a 1.01 ERA. Matt Cain was 3-1 with a 3.29 ERA. And fourth starter Madison Bumgarner had a 1.13 ERA in five starts. The Giants' September ERA (1.78) was the best for that month in the history of the sport.

The only thing Lincecum did in his playoff debut that was different from Roy Halladay's was that he actually allowed two hits. He was just as dominant, striking out 14 and overpowering the Braves with every pitch in every location imaginable.

You look at Lincecum and you can't quite figure out how he does what he does. He is listed at 5-11, 170 pounds. He does not look that big.

Leaving Game 4 on Monday night, he looked like a teenager on his way to a midnight movie. His hair in a ponytail, huge sunglasses covering his eyes, giant headphones over his ears, bag over his shoulder, dancing out of the clubhouse, Lincecum looked not at all like one of the best pitchers in the game. But he is. He absolutely is.

So, how does he do it?

"He's an unbelievable athlete," Giants catcher Buster Posey said after the Monday clincher. "He's just gifted. He's got a lot of fast-twitch muscles in his body and he puts them to good use."

How good an athlete? This good: Lincecum was a high school point guard and, for a time, a quarterback and cornerback.

As a high school junior, he wanted to try out for the golf team. He had played 27 holes in his life. He had to shoot 40 for nine holes to make the team. He shot 39.

Lincecum was 4-11, 85 pounds as a high school freshman in Renton, Wash. But he knew how to pitch. His father, Chris, a very good pitcher himself, taught Tim the unique mechanics he has to this day.

The exaggerated windup, the long stride, the arm flying forward with incredible force. It looks different. But it is beyond effective. Lincecum throws it hard. He throws it accurately. He throws all the pitches. And he competes.

A legend at the University of Washington, Lincecum flew through the minors and has been a sensation almost from the moment he hit the majors.

You really learn about a pitcher when it begins to go badly. It went very badly for Lincecum in August. He was 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA. He looked lost.

In September, he found "it" again. Now, he is getting his first long look at October. And his second postseason start comes tomorrow night at Citizens Bank Park against the man, Halladay.

If this was the only fascinating matchup in this series, that would be enough. But Sanchez and Cain are certainly in the conversation with Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

"One guy goes out, throws great and the next guy tries to match that," Posey said. "What makes it good is they've got unbelievable stuff."

They do. And the bullpen is nearly as good as the starters.

The Giants' team ERA (3.36) was the best in baseball. So were their 1,331 strikeouts and .236 batting average against.

The bullpen inherited 278 runners. Just 23.7 percent (best in baseball) scored.

Closer Brian Wilson had 48 saves. He struck out 93 and walked just 26. He had an ERA of 1.81. The rest of the bullpen has been about as hard to hit.

"No one's playing for themselves," Wilson said Monday night in Atlanta. "You've got a bunch of guys pulling for each other, you're going to win ballgames, you're going to find a way, whether it's by 10 or by 1."

If you watch for one thing in this series, check out which team scores first. It might be as important as that first goal in a hockey playoff game.

The Phillies were 64-13 (.831) when scoring first, best in baseball. The Giants were 63-19 (.768), second best in baseball.

Those numbers explain just how dominant the pitching staffs have been and demonstrate how important playing with a lead in this series might be.

When asked to assess the series, Wilson was very matter-of-fact and pragmatic.

"I've never been in the postseason, but I like our chances," he said. "We're going to match up our guys. We're going to match up their guys. I don't think you know what the story is yet, but we're going to play good baseball. I'm not an oracle just yet so I don't know what's going to happen."

Playoff pressure?

"You've got to man-up to those situations," Wilson said. "That's what you sign up for. If you're the goat, you deserve every single boo you get . . . You're expected to get the job done. You're paid to get the job done. I'm one of the players who say, 'If I'm a loser, boo me.' That's fine."

To win, you can't let fear of failure overwhelm you. So far, that has not been an issue with the 2010 San Francisco Giants. *

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