The angst of August turned out to be a blessing for San Francisco right-hander Tim Lincecum. The Giants’ two-time Cy Young award winner, an All-Star in each of his three full seasons in the big leagues, was humbled.
He’s better because of it.
Maybe better than he’s ever been, which is about as good as it gets.
Maybe not Roy Halladay good, but no sense splitting hairs.
It’s not like Lincecum followed up Halladay’s no-hit effort in his postseason debut in Philadelphia’s 4-0 victory against Cincinnati in Game 1 of their NL Division Series on Wednesday by throwing a no-hitter himself.
Lincecum actually gave up two hits in his postseason debut Thursday night, both of them doubles. He also walked a batter.
That’s all he gave up, however. And that was critical in light of the fact he pitched the Giants to a series-opening 1-0 victory against Atlanta in the other NL Division Series at AT&T Park.
And, oh, by the way, he also struck out 14, four more strikeouts than any other Giants pitcher ever had in a postseason game. He needed 119 pitches to give San Fran the early edge in the NLDS, which is no small thing considering that in the previous 15 years, the team that’s won the first game in the best-of-five opening round has advanced to the LCS 43 of 60 times.
"You’re always looking for an early edge,’’ said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "And he gave us the edge.’’
It’s the postseason, and in October it’s all about pitching. Think about the first two days this postseason. The starting pitchers on the six teams that won are not only a combined 6-0, but they’ve combined for a 1.22 ERA, striking out 48 while allowing only 19 hits and eight walks in 44 1/3 innings.
Cliff Lee gave Texas a quick boost in a Game 1 victory at Tampa Bay on Wednesday, but his one-run, seven-inning effort is only the fourth-best of the playoffs. His teammate, C.J. Wilson, worked 6 1/3 shutout innings, allowing two hits, in the Game 2 victory on Thursday. Halladay pitched the second no-hitter in postseason history Wednesday.
Then came Lincecum. Only once before had he allowed fewer than four hits in a complete game in his career — a two-hitter against St. Louis. But that was in June last year, not the playoffs.
"It’s hard to judge what better would be,’’ he said when asked if Thursday was his best game ever. "If you come out on top, I think that’s good. … I think that’s up there with one of my better ones, if I had to rate it.’’
It’s not like there are style points in baseball. There are no conspiracies by the French judges, although as has been the case in recent postseasons, the umpires do come under scrutiny.
In baseball, a win is a win, even if the lone run was scored thanks to a tainted stolen base — Buster Posey did seem to be out — and a debatable hit — Atlanta manager Bobby Cox thought his third baseman, Omar Infante, actually got an error on the play.
There was, however, no debate over the work of Lincecum.
He was so overpowering he even left Cox, who’s been ejected more times than any manager in history, subdued enough to shake off the suggestion that instant replay might be needed after plays like the Posey stolen base.
"We’d be arguing and throwing red flags 10 times a night,’’ Cox said. "Just leave it as it is.’’
Five pitches into the game, the no-hit wonder ended. Infante turned a 3-1 pitch into a double.
Lincecum didn’t even blink. After Jason Heyward flied to left, Lincecum struck out the next five batters.
"From the first inning on he had that confidence that you like to see out of him, and he carried it the whole way through,’’ Posey said.
What a relief for Lincecum and the Giants.
It was in August that the naysayers were finally having their way with Lincecum, whose 5-foot-11, 170-pound stature led scouts to question his durability when he came out of Washington, and led to him slipping to the Giants with the 10th pick in the first round.
He not only was 0-5, but had a 7.82 ERA to show for his five starts. He’d lost more than two games in a month only one other time in his 23 months in the big leagues. He was 2-3 in September a year ago.
Lincecum, however, didn’t give into the doubts that were nagging at him in August. He challenged himself to get better. He got more serious about his workout routine, putting more focus on strengthening his legs.
And then, in his six regular-season starts during September and October, he was 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA. He struck out 52 and walked eight in 41 2/3 innings. The encore came with his mastery of the Braves in the NLCS.
"Guys would tell me that everybody goes through struggles, that I was human, that kind of stuff,’’ Lincecum recalled. "Now, it almost feels like it’s that far back, and I try now to think about it, try not to get back into that same mental side.’’
"Right now, things feel like they’re in the right place,’’ he said.
And nobody was about to argue with him on that point.