Lovable Lincecum carries Giants' big hopes
Representing franchise's rebirth, ace takes mound for Game 1
PHILADELPHIA -- Even if Roy Halladay had thrown 10 consecutive no-hitters and sported a 120-mph fastball, the Giants still would approach Saturday's opener of the National League Championship Series with confidence.That's because Tim Lincecum's pitching for them. Lincecum has personified the Giants' promise since he ascended to the Major Leagues in 2007. Facing the same Phillies he'll confront in Game 1, he made his debut on May 6 -- Willie Mays' birthday. It was as if he were destined to perform magic for the Giants.
Lincecum did nothing to dispel that notion in his last appearance. He blanked Atlanta on two hits and struck out 14 in the Giants' Division Series-opening 1-0 victory on Oct 7.Lincecum's first season as a Giant was Barry Bonds' last. Most fans transferred their idolatry from one to the other almost seamlessly. Bonds, with his glowering presence and the cloud of a performance-enhancing substance investigation hovering over him, was difficult for some to embrace toward the end. Lincecum, who looked like he should have been skateboarding to his driver's education class, was instantly lovable. Why is that relevant, with the Giants branded as underdogs and Halladay, who's coming off a Division Series no-hitter against Cincinnati, opposing them in Game 1 at Citizens Bank Park? It's relevant because this game represents the culmination of so much hope -- the hope Lincecum inspires in the Giants and their fans virtually every time he strides to the mound in his purposeful fashion. Lincecum isn't unbeatable, though the reigning two-time NL Cy Young Award winner might seem invincible to many. His 16-10 record this year generated a .615 winning percentage, his lowest for a full season. But rookie left-hander Madison Bumgarner summarized how the Giants feel about Lincecum when he was asked last Monday how he maintained his composure in Game 4 of the Division Series at Atlanta.
Magical mound work
"There wasn't a whole lot of pressure. We would have had Timmy going [in Game 5]," Bumgarner said.That faith in Lincecum is matched by Giants fans, who view everything about him as charismatic -- from his long-striding delivery to his long hair, from his toothy grin to his stony gravity between the foul lines. "His starting this game is more than a fortunate turn of the calendar," said Brian Murphy, co-host of the "Murph & Mac" morning show on KNBR-AM, the Giants' flagship station. "It's the symbolic renaissance of a franchise that has had some great runs." Though this outing looms large in the public consciousness, Lincecum refused to place too much emphasis on it. "My approach on this game is the same as any other start," he said Friday. "Obviously it's a big game. But I don't want to get too over-amped." Like the Giants, who trailed the San Diego Padres by six games in the NL West standings on Aug. 28 yet still won the division, Lincecum has overcome adversity this season. By doing so, the confidence he inspires has multiplied. He responded to a sluggish Spring Training by winning his first five decisions and recording a 1.76 ERA in a span of eight starts. After his dreadful August, when he finished 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA, he went 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in September. Lincecum garnished that with 52 strikeouts and eight walks in 41 2/3 innings. He began that surge with a highly significant triumph. On Sept. 1, Lincecum worked eight innings and allowed only five hits while striking out nine in a 2-1 Giants victory. He defeated Ubaldo Jimenez, who bested him and the Giants, 4-0, on May 31. That outcome appeared to confirm that Jimenez had replaced Lincecum as the NL's pre-eminent right-hander. In this season, renowned as the most dominant one for pitchers since 1968, it's difficult to rate any hurler above the rest -- with the possible exception of Halladay, who threw a perfect game against Florida in the regular season. Lincecum insisted that he's not dwelling on opposing Halladay.
"I'm worried more about pitch selection to the guys like [Ryan] Howard and the guys like [Chase] Utley," Lincecum said.The Giants aren't too worried with Lincecum on their side. His results have matched his reputation. "I'm pretty sure all of America knows about him as 'The Freak.' It's a great nickname," closer Brian Wilson said. "He's focused out there. He's a remarkable talent."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.