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Senior Baseball Columnist

After lost year as starter, Lincecum roars back as Giants' secret weapon

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In just under 11 innings in relief this month, Lincecum's allowed one run, a walk and has 14 K's. (Getty Images)  
In just under 11 innings in relief this month, Lincecum's allowed one run, a walk and has 14 K's. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- A double off the third-base bag? A bunt that softly rolls down the third-base line until it comes to a complete stop in the dirt, an inch or two from going foul?

What in the name of Edgar Renteria will these Giants pull out of this lopsided magician's hat of a World Series?

Tim Lincecum as an ace reliever?

Well, um, ah ...

Two Giant bites out of the Tigers already digesting, San Francisco lands in Detroit with its two best starting pitchers lined up for Games 3 and 4 and a secret weapon stashed in the bullpen.

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They will hand the ball to Ryan Vogelsong in Game 3 on Saturday, and to Matt Cain in Sunday's Game 4.

They will make sure that Lincecum is near the bullpen phone and doesn't have too much time to think.

Hey, whatever works.

Following a disappointing and lost year as a starter, Lincecum is roaring back so successfully this postseason that many armchair managers are beginning to wonder if the Giants' best move now is to think about converting him to a full-time closer.

Intriguing thought. But as Lincecum reinvents himself yet again, and the names Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz begin to creep into conversations, Giants general manager Brian Sabean has a message.

Settle down.

"I can't answer that because he is under contract as a starter and will be in our rotation next year," says Sabean, who signed the two-time Cy Young winner last winter to a two-year, $42 million deal.

One thing unquestionably working in favor of both Lincecum and the Giants is that the incredibly limber right-hander continues to prove there is little he cannot do in this game.

"He's capable of anything," Sabean says. "Because of the kind of athlete he is, and he's got a rubber arm."

Before this October, 188 of Lincecum's 189 career appearances had come as a starter.

Yet after going 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA this summer -- one of the worst ERAs in the majors among regular starters -- Lincecum was left out of the Giants' postseason rotation. Though certainly a conversation-starter, it was hardly a surprise. Manager Bruce Bochy has put team and winning above everything else throughout his underrated managerial career. In 2010, the Giants left Barry Zito off of the postseason roster for the entire month of October.

Lincecum so far has made one postseason start, a Game 4 loss in St. Louis during the NL Championship Series, and four postseason relief appearances. In 10 2/3 relief innings, he's surrendered only three hits, fanned 14 and walked one.

As a reliever, he's 1-0 with a 0.84 ERA. As a starter, 0-1 with a 7.71 ERA.

Among the keys to Lincecum's newfound success, say the Giants, is that he genuinely is enjoying himself. What they've found is a much more relaxed Freak.

Despite Lincecum's summer-long struggles, Sabean says he isn't surprised by any of his relief success.

"No, because of the type of athlete he is and how unorthodox he is," the GM says. "The kid really does like to pitch and compete.

"For whatever reason, he's more relaxed as a reliever than as a starter right now."

The mind, former Twins manager Tom Kelly was fond of saying, is a very dangerous thing. Part of that seems evident with Lincecum.

"He doesn't have time to think," one scout who has watched the Giants all summer theorizes regarding Lincecum's bullpen success. "You've seen his starts all summer, and he's had trouble in the first innings.

"He doesn't have the same stuff, and now it's 'Here it is, go hit it.' And when you follow a guy like Zito, that's a completely different look."

While Lincecum's 97-98 mph fastball disappeared long ago, his 91, 92 heater -- and split-finger fastball -- sizzled to Tigers hitters in Game 1 after Zito and his mid-80s fastball departed.

So much of a manager's job is putting his players in position to succeed. You hear that all the time. Well, Bochy right now is doing an absolutely masterful job of that with Lincecum.

"I've been just trying to simplify things," Lincecum says. "My mentality has been just to get my outs where I need to. That's pretty much all I'm thinking about until I'm done.

"Yeah, the last thing you want to do is be out there thinking about your mechanics."

So he immediately pitches out of the stretch, which eliminates the wind-up or stretch question. He is ready in shockingly little time in the pen, another angle to the "Freak" nickname that fits so well. Most nights, he's ready to roll into a game in fewer than 10 pitches.

"I don't know how he does it," says Hector Sanchez, who catches some of these microwaveable minute sessions.

Though he did not pitch in Game 2, Bochy says he will not hesitate to deploy Lincecum on back-to-back days if warranted. So keep that in mind as Games 3, 4 and possibly 5 approach.

"The thing about Timmy is, he's so competitive," Bochy says. "But at the same time, he's such a good teammate. ...

"He wants to do it. He wants to help. And he's ready. It's a nice weapon to have."

"He's been great, for some reason," says Cain, who mostly has played Robin to Lincecum's Batman in the Giants' superhero pecking order over the past several years. "He's been lighting it up.

"But nothing really surprises me with him."

Even as the new "kid" on the block in the bullpen, Giants relievers allowed Lincecum to skip right past any initiation ceremonies.

"He's got more time than George Kontos and those guys, so he doesn't have to carry the bag" of sunflower seeds and snacks to the bullpen, Jeremy Affeldt quips. "We're not changing anything with him. He keeps throwing 2 1/3 scoreless innings, hey, you just keep doing what you're doing."

That remains Lincecum's current attitude on a couple of fronts.

One, he's very happy to continue racking up scoreless innings this postseason.

Two, looking ahead to 2013 and beyond, he wants to keep doing what he's been doing for the past few years, not the past several days.

"I'd definitely entertain the idea" of becoming a closer, Lincecum says. "But until I feel my career is done as a starter, I probably won't lean that way.

"I'd like to start my whole career until starting isn't a possibility anymore. Right now, I just want to help the team in any way I can."

That speaks volumes, both of Lincecum and of the Giants.

Some people will tell you that chemistry is overrated in baseball.

Now closing in on winning their second World Series title in three seasons, the Giants will tell you something else.

"We've created that culture here because of the manager and the pitching coach [Dave Righetti] and the coaching staff," Sabean says. "I think guys learned from the way Zito handled things.

"They know how to be teammates, and that says a lot."

Tim Lincecum, a closer one day?

"That wouldn't surprise me," Sabean says. "But it's not in our plans."

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