LOS ANGELES There was a time when Tim Lincecum could mowthrough any lineup using just two blades.
His fastball and his changeup. Both thrown with the sameblurry arm speed.
The changeup was not fair. It faded. It disappeared. It wasperfectly disguised as another roaring, rabbit fastball out of the hand. Thenit would tumble like a puff of dying exhaust underneath so many hopeful bats.
The changeup was the pitch that won Lincecum two Cy Youngs,that helped to deliver the Giants a World Series title, that promised to keep him inthe game many years longer than the projections of all those amateur scouts wholooked at his scrawny body and draped their reports with red flags.
But Lincecum has not been himself this season. He took themound Tuesday night with a 5.45 ERA, and no more room for baby steps or moral victories. First place was at stake. And in manyrespects, this was his most important regular-season start as a Giant. Whilenot yet in the backstretch, this pennant race is about to kick into a swifterpace. Lincecum had to prove to himself, to his coaches and teammates, that hecould keep up as he once did.
When warriors go into battle, they favor their truest blade.For Lincecum, youd pick his changeup, right?
He did not.
He threw three of them, maybe four.
Outs are just outs, said Lincecum, who won enough battlesover 5 23 innings of a heartening 4-1 victory at Dodger Stadium. Itdoesnt matter whether you use your changeup, slider or fastball or whatever.
You talk to your catcher and get feedback. If a certainpitch is working, you dont have to go to the others except maybe to flash it.The fastball was good and the slider was good, so thats what we went with.
The slider did not feel good in the spring, youll recall.Lincecum vowed not to throw it, for a few reasons. The pitch tended toexacerbate a blister issue on the tip of his middle finger. But mostly, he foundthat throwing the slider made it more difficult to find and keep a consistentrelease point with his fastball.
Miidway through his second start of the season, Lincecumrealized he needed his slider. The plan changed.
It continues to evolve.
In front of a hostile, sellout crowd, Lincecum threw 47fastballs, 25 sliders, and although Pitch FX had him at 10 changeups, Lincecumestimated he threw less than half that many.
Essentially, he was a fastball-slider pitcher.
Its a pitch I can throw across the plate that breaks awayfrom right-handers and in on lefties, he said of his slider. Its a pitchIve been looking for, really, to open up the plate to both sides.
Thats what makes this game fun and exciting, he continued.Its a chess game every day. One year, you might go fastball-changeup. Thenext year you might find fastball-slider is what works.
The trouble Ive had is knowing what to improve or what tochange instead of putting emphasis on the right things and relying on what gotme here.
That means relying on what works on a given night, too. On this 75-degree night at Chavez Ravine, during those crisis moments when Lincecum has failed to make a pitch so many times thisseason, he knew he could put stock in the slider. He threw one to Matt Kempwith a 3-1 count in the fourth inning. Swing and a miss. Then Lincecum followedwith another that resulted in a double-play grounder.
When the Dodgers placed hits to load the bases in the sixth,Lincecum faced Kemp again. He threw a fastball for a called strike. And then
I wasnt going to compound the problem, he said. I wasjust trying to get one out. I didnt care if it was a sacrifice fly. I couldtell from the first slider I threw him in the game that if I put it in the rightspot, just off the black, it could just be a pop fly.
Lincecum threw it off the black. Kemp did better than pop itup, but his drive to right field held no danger of reaching the pavilion. HunterPence gloved it for a sacrifice fly. It was the only run Lincecum allowed.
It should be noted that Lincecums fastball had more life,too. He said he didnt change his workout routine between starts or make anymechanical tweaks from the last outing -- a messy, 96-pitch night againstWashington in which he completed just four innings.
Perhaps he was a bit fresher with an extra day, or a littlemore amped because of the opponent. For whatever reason, his average velocitywas 92.4 mph and he topped out at almost 94.
But he didnt try to blow away hitters with gas. He used itto set up the slider. He did exactly what manager Bruce Bochy hoped he would do: Keep making pitches, and never let up.
Thats a good sign for us, for him, Bochy said. I thoughthe did a really good job of pitching. He mixed it up well and used both sides.
Lincecum spoke of trying to erase his first-half failures.In the next breath, he acknowledged he cannot undo the past.
But in a pennantrace, there is no rear view.
Its all about that finishing kick, and no matter what weapon hechooses, the Giants are counting on Lincecum to be sharp.
I cant change what happened, he said. I can only makebetter pitches now.