DETROIT – The San Francisco Giants don’t want any confusion.
Even though former Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum looks to be in the midst of an incredible career change along the lines of Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, his trip from the rotation to the bullpen is temporary. Lincecum will return to starting next spring, manager Bruce Bochy said pointedly late Saturday night after Lincecum pitched 2∑ more dominant innings of relief in the Giants’ 2-0 win over the Detroit Tigers.
Lincecum is a $20 million man next season, the final year of his contract. And the Giants clearly want their money’s worth by getting 150-200 innings, rather than perhaps half that with “The Freak” working out of the pen.
Lincecum went 10-15 in the regular season with a 5.18 ERA, the fourth-worst in the majors among starters who threw at least 162 innings. But he’s 1-0, 1.69 in 13 relief innings in the playoffs, allowing just one run on three hits – and striking out 17.
“He’s an incredible talent, and he’s a great starter,” Bochy said. “It just so happened it worked out that we thought he could really help us in the bullpen, which he’s done an amazing job. But he’s a starter, and that’s where he’s going next year.”
In this series, he has pitched 4∏ hitless innings, faced 16 batters, struck out eight and walked one. Only 10 times in playoff history, four by Mariano Rivera, has a reliever thrown at least 13 innings with a lower ERA in a single postseason.
“I think just being able to contribute is the biggest thing for me,” Lincecum said. “I know this season I didn’t do exactly what I wanted to do, so to go out there and just to be able to do something for the team, whether that’s for two innings or an inning or four innings, that’s really my goal.”
Lincecum struggled throughout the regular season and scouts were baffled by his sudden loss of velocity, with theories abounding that his violent delivery has taken its toll on his arm. He was asked after Game Three if he ever ponders how he might do in a middle or closer’s role making 60-70 appearances in a season. He said the thought has never crossed his mind.
“Right now the bullpen role is for the World Series and that’s my mind-set,” Lincecum said. “I’m just going to be out there as a safety net kind of thing, and if I can pick up innings here and there in these games, that’s what I’m there to do. As I said, I’m just fortunate that I’ve been able to come out on the top side of these, and fortunate to come out on the back side of wins.”
The Giants gave Lincecum one postseason start and he gave up four runs in 4∏ innings of the Game Four loss in St. Louis that put San Francisco into a 3-1 hole in the NLCS.
Lincecum went back to the bullpen for good after that and the Giants went into Sunday on a six-game winning streak.
Bochy said Lincecum has made adjustments in his delivery from the stretch position that have tightened his mechanics and returned lots of the missing bite to his pitches.
“What we thought when we put him in the bullpen was he would give us another weapon down there to help out,” Bochy said. “He seems comfortable. He has relished the role. That’s the biggest part of it: He accepted it and really acted like he looked forward to helping the club in that role, and that’s why I think he’s having success. He didn’t waver on going to the bullpen.”
Lincecum was 69-41 in his first five years in the big leagues before this year’s blowup, which featured a career high in walks (90) and home runs allowed (23) and his lowest strikeout total since his rookie year.
Game Three starter and winner Ryan Vogelsong marveled at the impact Lincecum has had on this World Series, given the fact he won two games and was nearly named Most Valuable Player of the Giants’ 2010 victory over Texas.
“What sticks out the most to me is when the lights come on in the biggest stage, he’s showed everybody what he’s truly about and he’s thrown the ball unbelievable this whole postseason out of the bullpen,” Vogelsong said. “And you’ve got to tip your hat to him because he could have been upset about going to the bullpen, and not one second did you ever see that from him. He just went down there and came out firing BBs, and he’s been really impressive.”
Bochy said it was a group decision of the coaches and front office to put Lincecum in the bullpen. Partly it was felt he would be able to warm up the easiest and most efficiently of the starters.
“It just made sense to put Timmy there and help us out those middle innings, which he’s done an incredible job in,” Bochy said.
“I thought he had pretty good stuff against St. Louis. When you have the talent that he has, it’s nice to have the ability to go either way. I assure you, he’s going to be in the rotation next year, but it’s nice to have that weapon helping us in the bullpen now.”