Ann Killion
Tuesday August 17th, 2010

What happens when a back-to-back Cy Young winner has back-to-back horrible outings?

A cool gray city turns to red-hot panic.

Tim Lincecum's struggles have San Francisco quaking. The Giants' ace has been laboring for much of the season but now, in August, in the midst of a playoff push, Lincecum appears to have gone into some sort of free fall.

"I can't keep searching," Lincecum said after his latest subpar effort last Sunday, in which he allowed eight hits and six runs for the second straight start without making it past the fourth inning in an 8-2 loss to the NL West-leading Padres. "I've just gotta go out and pitch."

But he's not pitching like the same hippieish wonderkid who wowed the baseball world for the past two seasons en route to consecutive NL Cy Young awards. He still has long-flowing locks, but now they're stringy with a sweat born of frustration and futility.

In his past 10 starts, Lincecum is 3-5 with a 4.91 ERA and is now 11-7 overall with a 3.62 ERA that is more than a run higher than it was last season. He's struggled with the velocity and location on his fastball. He tinkered with his delivery, going with a hands-over-his-head windup then abandoning it. He seems to be overthinking things.

"I've become a big thinker," he said. "That just the way I am. The brain never stops working. You start focusing on the wrong things or the negatives and they exacerbate themselves and start to manifest and build up on each other."

The beautiful thing about Lincecum -- up to this point -- was that he never seemed to be overthinking anything. He didn't seem to be a player who was prone to too much analysis, or worried about things like "exacerbate" or "manifest." He was "the Freak" and "the Franchise," a natural talent packed into the 5'11", 170-pound body of a 17-year old skateboard dude.

For the Giants, who are locked in a tight three-team wild-card race, this is more than just another slump by just another pitcher. Lincecum, 26, set an incredibly high standard, becoming the first pitcher ever to win two Cy Youngs in his first three seasons. He is the player the team depends on, the one that has fueled its playoff hopes.

And Lincecum is not only the ace pitcher at the top of their talented rotation, he's the face of the franchise. The main attraction. The selling point. The kid who has brought a fresh vibe to an old franchise.

That's a big thing for the Giants, because -- as you might recall -- their previous face of the franchise wasn't a very palatable one. Lincecum wandered into the tail end of a Barry Bonds-dominated clubhouse and changed the Giants look, their vibe, their aura. He's as tiny as Bonds was overly huge. Instead of walking through the clubhouse with a surly pout, he's been known to walk through the clubhouse on his hands. In the corner where Bonds once had an enormous lounge chair and private TV, Lincecum has a dog bed, filled with toys for his French bulldog Cy.

He's brought a whimsical, endearing presence to a team that spent much of the past two decades honing the art of unlikability.

When Lincecum filed for arbitration last winter, he had overwhelming support from the paying customers, who rejoiced when he eventually signed a two-year, $23 million deal. Even his pot bust last offseason was embraced by the Giants' -- albeit notoriously liberal -- fan base. Weed? Hey, at least it wasn't steroids. Been there, done that.

But now there's concern. Something even more than that.

The reason Lincecum was available to the Giants with the 10th pick of the 2006 draft is that some other clubs had concerns about his size, his unconventional throwing motion and his durability.

There's been no suggestion -- at least not by anybody that counts, like Lincecum or the Giants -- that there are physical reasons behind his current problems. It may just be that he's hit the first real rut of his career and is overthinking it. Or it may be something more.

There are new concerns about his stature. About his pitch counts. About how he is affected by the departure of recently traded catcher Bengie Molina: he's now throwing to a rookie catcher in Buster Posey, and didn't Lincecum make sure to point out after he won his second Cy Young last November how important Molina was to his success?

No one knows quite what the problem is. But Lincecum -- who spent about a half-hour with Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti analyzing his performance after Sunday's game -- conceded that his confidence was rocked.

"Yeah it can be," he said. "You get frustrated when things don't go your way. "

The Freak is frustrated. And San Francisco is freaking out.

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