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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

After a terrible August, Lincecum regains his 'freakish' form

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DENVER -- With nine days to go, the National League West is far from being decided. With nine days left, the National League wild card is very much in play.

But with nine days to go, here's what is certain:

The most intriguing first-round matchup the NL could serve up would be Phillies vs. Giants.

If you didn't know that before, you had to realize it Friday. You had to see it, on a night where Tim Lincecum showed he's back to being his Cy Young self, on a night where Pat Burrell showed he's back to being an offensive threat, on a night where the Giants continued one of the most amazing streaks of the year with a 2-1 win that basically ended the Rockies' season.

Tim Lincecum finds his form in time to help the Giants' playoff push. (Getty Images)  
Tim Lincecum finds his form in time to help the Giants' playoff push. (Getty Images)  
That's Lincecum, who because of an awful August has no chance at a third straight Cy Young, but could end up instead with a Game 1 playoff matchup with Phillies ace Roy Halladay, the likely heir to the award Lincecum has owned. That's Burrell, who because of an awful April and May had no chance to stay with the playoff-bound Rays, but could end up instead with a chance to torment the Phillies, the team he helped win the 2008 World Series.

That's the Giants, whose streak of 18 consecutive games without allowing four runs is the longest since the 1917 White Sox. And the Phillies, whose Big Three of Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt have gone all month without pitching in a loss.

Are you intrigued yet?

Obviously, the Giants still need to get to the playoffs, but Friday's win makes that a little more likely. They pushed the nearly-dead Rockies to 4 ½ games back, and left the Giants half a game ahead of the second-place Padres.

If the season ended now, the Phillies would actually face the Padres, who took over the wild-card lead with their win over the Reds Friday night. The Giants would play the Reds. But with the Giants, Padres, Reds and Braves all within a game of each other, the West and wild-card races, and the race for home-field and matchups, could go right down to the end.

You can be sure that every one of those other teams wants to avoid the Phillies in the first round. And, perhaps, that every one of those other teams would like to avoid the Giants, too.

"If we get in the playoffs, it's going to be pretty difficult for teams to face our pitching," said closer Brian Wilson (who quietly is looking every bit as dominant as Phils closer Brad Lidge). "I don't think other teams want to face our pitching, not at all."

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It's hard to imagine anyone wants to face Lincecum, who has followed the worst month of his career (he was 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in August) with one of the best (he's 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA this month). He was at his best Friday, carrying a perfect game through five innings and allowing just two hits through eight.

"This is Timmy," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's an incredible talent. We all have our bumps in the road, but now he's back to what he is, and pitching like we've seen the last couple of years."

In other words, pitching like a Cy Young winner.

He won't win it this year, even though he has 15 wins and a third straight season with 200-plus innings and 200-plus strikeouts (the first Giants pitcher with that double since Juan Marichal, and the second since Christy Mathewson).

But Lincecum seems to understand that he and the Giants are chasing something more important -- and more satisfying -- than an award. Just like Halladay, he has a chance to get to the playoffs for the first time in his career -- and he didn't even need to get traded to do it.

"In September, it's not about me," he said. "It's about the team.. .. You've heard [Albert] Pujols say that he doesn't care about all the awards, that he just wants the ring. A guy with all those credentials says that, you know what matters."

The Giants seem as fired up as you'd expect them to be about this pennant race. The dugout erupted when Burrell hit his long two-run shot in the seventh inning Friday night.

Of course, the way the Giants hit, the dugout might erupt for an infield single or two.

Bochy knows that it's tough to get to the playoffs with a team that scores one or two runs a night, even with a pitching staff that gives up one or none on so many nights.

"It's important we score some runs," he said Friday afternoon. "The pitching can't give us any more."

During the remarkable 18-game streak, the Giants pitchers haven't allowed more than three runs in a game. But during that same 18-game span, the Giants hitters have scored more than two runs only 10 times.

That's why they feel so fortunate to have Burrell, who has 17 home runs and 45 RBI in his 88 games with the Giants. Burrell feels just as fortunate to be here, considering where he was after the Rays released him.

"I think about it all the time," he said. "I could have still been home on the couch."

Instead, he could be heading back to Philadelphia, to play the Phillies in the playoffs. And then, who knows, maybe back to Tampa Bay to play the Rays in the World Series.

"We've still got to get there first," Burrell said.

Yes, they do. The NL West race -- and the wild-card race -- are much too tight for the Giants to do any looking ahead.

But we can. We can look ahead.

And we can hope that next month, we're watching Giants vs. Phillies.

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