Lincecum still looking for consistency
PHOENIX -- Tim Lincecum has already won two World Series titles and a pair of National League Cy Young Awards in his career, now in its seventh season.
At 28, the Giants right-hander has earned $64 million. As a pending free agent this offseason, he stands to earn another big payday. That ought to be enough motivation, but it isn't the thing that drives him, he said on Wednesday night.
"I just love baseball and I enjoy being out there," Lincecum said in the Giants clubhouse after the game at Chase Field. "I'm a competitive person by nature so when you put me out on the mound it's kind of where I feel like I belong. Most people think about getting to the World Series and winning that ring. When you have a taste of that it's not about getting there anymore, it's about winning and when you don't it's kind of a sad note."
Lincecum has reached the point where he's searching for his own personal consistency on a team that simply knows how to win. Despite what Giants manager Bruce Bochy called another "erratic" start, Lincecum said he didn't exactly struggle in a game the Giants eventually came back and won, 9-6, over the D-backs.
"I'm just not hitting my spots and finishing off guys like I should," he said.
Lincecum lasted five innings in this one, allowing five runs on 10 hits, including a three-run homer to light-hitting Arizona shortstop Cliff Pennington, his first of the still young season. When Lincecum was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth, he'd left his club in a 5-1 hole, which is not where anyone on that team wants him to be.
Lincecum hasn't finished a season at .500 since 2010. Last year, he was so lost at 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA that Bochy put him in the bullpen for most of the postseason. The Giants came from way back to win each of the first two rounds and then swept the Tigers to capture the World Series for the second time in the last three postseasons.
He was 4-1 as a lights out starter in the 2010 postseason and did just fine in six postseason appearances this past October, five of them in relief. It was a learning experience and evidently Lincecum is still learning.
"I think it helped get his confidence back," Bochy said. "I think it helped him realize how good he is. Despite the struggles during last year the talent is there. He just got out of sync with his delivery."
"The biggest thing is approaching it as if each batter is your last," Lincecum said. "You don't go out there as a starter and say the first batter is going to be my last, but you have to approach it that way and have that kind of conviction in your pitches. That'll get you through a long game and you'll be able to draw something when you're in jams. Last postseason gave me the confidence that I can do that, although tonight I didn't do that."
Lincecum came into the game having had two very Lincecum-like starts in a row against the Padres, allowing only two runs and striking out 17 in 13 2/3 innings. He won the first one, 2-0 and lost the second, 2-1. Right now, he's 2-1 with a 4.41 ERA, but can take solace in the fact that the 16-12 Giants have been victorious in five of his six starts.
At the end of this past season, Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean indicated that Lincecum's problems were both mental and mechanical and that he'd need an entire winter and Spring Training to straighten it all out. Lincecum put in the work to try and elevate his performance to the level of 2008-09 when he won those back-to-back Cy Youngs.
"He's quieted down some things in his delivery. He's made things a little simpler," Bochy said. "We all get derailed at times. Timmy worked hard this winter on his conditioning and on the pitching side. It's starting to pay off for him. I like the way he's throwing the ball right now. It doesn't matter what [went] on tonight. His [previous] two starts were really good. Really all of his games have been pretty good. He's done a good job getting himself back on track."
When asked to define the problem, Bochy added:
"Guys get out of sync, whether his stride is short or long. His arm gets a little too long, opening up. All these things make you go a little awry as a starter. I'd say it was all of the above with Timmy at times. That was affecting his command."
Even though he didn't walk a batter and struck out six on Wednesday, Lincecum admitted he still didn't have his command. For example, he had A.J. Pollack 0-2 to lead off the second with two sharp fastballs and then grooved an 84-mph slider that the D-backs center fielder drilled for a single. Three batters later Pennington hit the homer and the Giants were behind, 3-0.
It was a battle for Lincecum from there on in as 10 of the 23 batters he faced reached base. At the point of his departure, he had already tossed 86 pitches. That's not a recipe for continued success. He's still experimenting, still searching
Did he lose confidence in himself last year?
"Definitely," Lincecum said. "The way things were going it was more of a question mark than an affirmation for me. Were things going to go well? It was a matter of hoping rather than knowing."
That's the difference from last year to this year, Lincecum said. Now, he knows he's making the right pitches, but he's not regularly putting them in the right spots.
Until he does that with any consistency, the motivation will be there, but the self doubt and the questions will remain.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.