© 2012 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
CINCINNATI -- Enter "The Freak," from stage left.
Everything changed in that moment of Game 4 of this National League Division Series.
Well, maybe not everything. After all, the Giants already led the Reds by a run, and the Reds had already found a way to strand six baserunners in just three innings of play.
But if there was still hope in the hearts of the Reds and their fans at Great American Ball Park, if avoiding the unsettling scenario of a Game 5 in a series they once led two games to nil was still a profound possibility, if the visitors had any vulnerability, well, this was the moment that quickly quashed all of that.
This was the moment Tim Lincecum arrived to effectively extend a series and a season.
"When you're on a stage like this," Bruce Bochy said after the 8-3 win Wednesday, "you're hoping somebody steps up. Timmy has that ability, and he did tonight for us."
Bochy had felt good about having Lincecum available out of the 'pen in the second installment of the Giants' do-or-die scenario. After all, how often can you turn to a rested-and-ready two-time Cy Young Award winner in a pinch?
Now, if we're being a little cynical, a little snarky, we could wonder aloud why Bochy, if he felt so good about Lincecum, didn't just start "The Freak" in the first place. Just two years ago, the Giants turned to Lincecum in Game 1 of each postseason series, and he won all three of them. Just nine months ago, they agreed to pay Lincecum $40.5 million over two years -- an indication that, you know, he was pretty valuable to them.
All 2012 troubles aside, was it that crazy to think he might have more to offer in this setting than Barry Zito, whose late-season surge was at least partially a product of rousing run support?
That question hung in the air as Zito, in an inefficient outing, hung a curve to Ryan Ludwick in the third. Zito lasted just 2 2/3 innings, and he needed 76 pitches to even make it that far. The damage could have been a lot worse, but Zito could have been a lot better. He, like Reds emergency starter Mike Leake, was basically blah.
Would Lincecum have been much better in that starting scenario? We'll never know.
But even if you questioned the Zito-over-Lincecum conclusion reached by the Giants, you couldn't possibly question the way it ended up working out. Because when Lincecum landed on the scene, he punished the Reds, preserved the 'pen and prolonged a series of increasing intrigue.
And he did so by looking nothing like the pitcher who labored his way through the 2012 season proper.
"The times are different," Lincecum said. "We're playing for a different reason than just the season, to get to the NLCS and further. So I feel with that motivation, it helps to get into those situations and not think about the difference of starting and being in a bullpen situation. It's just that I've got to get my outs and do my job."
Lincecum understood and accepted his job here, and that's half the battle. He didn't whine or pout when told he'd be shelved as a starter in this series. Whatever is best for the club, he said.
"I love a man like this," said Bochy, "who has the talent he does and buys into what we were doing."
Before he even knew what Lincecum, in his second relief appearance of the series, would deliver on the mound in Game 4, Bochy knew what his mere availability meant. It meant Bochy was able to mix and match in the early innings the way he ordinarily would in the seventh or eighth.
Bochy had a quick trigger-finger, yanking Zito with one on and two out in the third, with right-hander George Kontos getting fellow righty Drew Stubbs to pop up with the final out. In the fourth, Kontos let two aboard with one out, and Bochy went lefty-on-lefty in summoning Jose Mijares to face Joey Votto, who struck out.
The right-handed Ludwick was due up next, and Bochy leaned on Lincecum. History was on his side, for Ludwick was 3-for-24 with three singles and 12 strikeouts in his career against Lincecum at that point.
And after falling behind 0-2, Lincecum got Ludwick to foul off a four-seamer, then got him swinging helplessly at a pair of 84-mph changeups.
"Yeah, he had an off year, and his velocity is down," Ludwick said. "But he came at me with a couple of heaters and a slider, and then we all know he has a great changeup. He finished me off with two. When he throws it, it still has good finish to it. That's Tim."
Lincecum worked 4 1/3 innings, allowing just a run on a pair of hits with six strikeouts. Fifty five pitches. Forty two strikes. He didn't fool around.
"He was the hero today," Zito said.
Watching Lincecum eat up those innings, you couldn't help but think back to Game 3's 10th inning, when Dusty Baker opted to let Jonathan Broxton pitch to Joaquin Arias with two on and two out, rather than intentionally walking him to get to pitcher Sergio Romo's spot, where Hector Sanchez would have pinch-hit.
Had Baker made that move, who knows? Sanchez could have come through in the clutch, just as Arias did with his hustle down the line while Scott Rolen booted the ball at third. But whether he came through or not, the Giants would have turned to Lincecum in the bottom of the 10th, thereby making him less than likely to take the mound again Wednesday night.
So we saw two managerial decisions loom large. And Bochy's decision to roll with Zito on a short leash, knowing he had a potential ace in the hole in Lincecum, looked wise, in the aftermath.
This was Lincecum's Pedro Martinez moment. It was Pedro who froze the Cleveland bats out of the bullpen for six innings in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS, with the Red Sox rallying around him to claim the clincher.
Unlike Martinez, Lincecum's heroics weren't accompanied by champagne, for one game still separates these Giants from that next step. But if the Giants are popping corks postgame Thursday, one thing is clear:
They'd better not keep "The Freak" on a leash in the NLCS.