Tim Lincecum a giant question entering first start of year

AP File PhotoWas the 2012 season just a blip on the radar for Tim Lincecum or will this season be like the last?

AP File PhotoWas the 2012 season just a blip on the radar for Tim Lincecum or will this season be like the last?

The hoopla surrounding Opening Day is unparalleled and the electricity pulsating from AT&T Park this weekend for the home opener will be second to none.

But from a pure baseball perspective, the most intriguing game of this opening week will be today, when Tim Lincecum will take the hill to close out the series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  

Lincecum, entering his last year under contract, is coming off a disastrous season in which he posted a career-worst 10-15 record with a 5.18 ERA. That was followed by a 10.57 spring ERA.

“Happy Lincecum Day” has turned into “Hold Your Breath Day.”

Lincecum did show some signs of life in the postseason last year, as he was dominant coming out of the bullpen and played an integral role in the Giants’ second World Series championship in three years.

But the Giants aren’t paying in the neighborhood of $20 million for a reliever. They, or anyone else, won’t fork out that kind of dough if he doesn’t do an about-face in 2013.

San Francisco needs the 5-foot-10 right-hander with the funky delivery to recapture that aura of invincibility that endeared him to fans and propelled him to two NL Cy Young Awards. Even in 2009, when it looked like his reputation might take a hit after he was cited for marijuana possession, all it did was spawn the “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirt craze and grow the Lincecum legend.

Of late, though, the only grass associated with Lincecum has been the patch from the dugout to the mound that manager Bruce Bochy crosses all too often to give him an early hook.

The troubling thing is that 2012 may not be just a blip on the radar. Lincecum’s strikeout totals have dipped and his walks have climbed each season since 2009. Not the type of trend that would lead you to believe an elixir is coming to remedy everything. The good news for the Giants is they are so deep in the rotation they no longer need Lincecum to be an ace. But over the course of a 162-game season, Lincecum will need to perform. The Giants have no other great options to plug into the rotation.

So while the Dos Equis guy may be the most interesting man in the world, Lincecum is easily the most interesting man in San Francisco, clouded with uncertainty.

Can he recapture that postseason form as a starter? Is this his last year in The City? Will he ever be the same?

None of those questions will be answered with tonight’s start, or even the next one. A sustained sample size is the only thing that can provide a clear picture of what the future holds for No. 55.

One thing is for certain, though. If Lincecum is rocked tonight, you can be sure talks of his struggles will pick up right where they left off last season.

Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at dkruse@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @dylan_kruse.

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