A win against Nationals could do a lot for Timmy

Courtesy PhotoStarting pitcher: Tim Lincecum

I don’t want to get dragged into the whole, “Is he or isn’t he back?” conversation about the Giants’ Tim Lincecum. What’s “back” when you’ve won a pair of NL Cy Young awards? Is Matt Cain “gone” now that he’s 3-3 with a 4.18 ERA since his perfect game?

Lincecum might never be the most dominant pitcher in baseball again, but can he return to ace form? That’s the question producing so much anxiety among the faithful and why each of his starts gets dissected like a cadaver in Biology 101. They’ve been through this before with Barry Zito — always looking for flashes of the past, signs that he’s flipped the switch, only to be let down when the backslide kicks in.

That’s why Lincecum’s start against Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals at AT&T Park this afternoon carries so much symbolic meaning. It’s the rubber match (UPDATE) of a three-game set against a likely playoff team with the game’s best young pitcher on the mound. If Timmy can pull out a win today, it has to mean something, right?

After hitting rock bottom by losing his sixth straight decision on June 16 (his ERA was 6.19), Lincecum slowly started creeping back to form. Fans were eager to proclaim he was “back” after seven shutout innings clinched a series sweep over the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 27. Then Lincecum went on the road and surrendered 13 earned runs in 6²⁄³ innings over two starts, and manager Bruce Bochy indicated he might pull him from the
rotation.

But since the All-Star break, Lincecum’s been the Giants’ most consistent starter, going 3-2 with a 2.72 ERA.
Still, fans are cautious because his recent success has come against a group of teams with sub-.500 records, including Houston Astros (38-79 (UPDATE!!) and Colorado Rockies (42-71 UPDATE!!). And what they want more than anything is some indication that big-game Timmy of 2010 might suddenly burst out of a phone booth somewhere near Third and King streets and carry the team down the stretch.

What endears Lincecum to Giants fans so much is his competitiveness. He’s a stringy kid who plays sandlot baseball and it seems like the bigger the stage, the more his blood boils. Think back to 2010. There was apprehension that Lincecum had lost it after he struggled through August (0-5, 7.81 ERA). But then he tossed a 14-strikeout, two-hit complete game shutout against the Atlanta Braves in his first career playoff start.

That’s the fire fans are hoping to see this afternoon. Right now, Strasburg is Lincecum of a few years ago. Since his debut in 2010, he’s dazzled whenever healthy, posting a miniscule 1.06 WHIP while averaging 11.3 strikeouts for every nine innings pitched. If Lincecum can go toe to toe with him today, he can twirl with any ace in October, right?

Lincecum might be streaky for the rest of his career, but he still has the stuff and the guts to be a nasty big-game pitcher. Does it really matter what happens in May if you’re lights-out when it counts?

Today’s bout with Strasburg won’t really tell us anything about what’s going to happen when things heat up in September — it’ just one game, No. 118 out of 162. But a win sure would be a confidence booster, to Lincecum and anyone who’s asking: Is he back?

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com.

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