SAN FRANCISCO -- "Used to" isn't an encouraging way to describe an athlete who's 27, never had a major injury and was considered state-of-the art just 18 months ago.
But that's what's happening with San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum. He's being talked about in the past tense. Lincecum is even doing it himself.
"The toughest part for me to take right now," Lincecum said Tuesday night after giving up a fourth run in the seventh inning of a 5-4 loss to Colorado, "is I used to be able to -- not used to but I've been known to -- get out of innings like that and pick up the team."
Lincecum used to dominate. He used to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. He used to be the Giants' unquestioned ace. The day he pitched used to be called "Lincecum Day," with the presumption of a victory. Now it's just another day for a team struggling to stay above .500.
Lincecum sounded discouraged after his latest outing without a win. He didn't get the decision on Tuesday, thanks to a Giants' rally that tied the game at 4-4 after Lincecum (2-3) exited (closer Santiago Casilla gave up a solo home run to Marco Scutaro in the ninth). But it was the sixth time in eight Lincecum outings that the Giants have lost.
The pitcher who used to always be the answer is searching for one. Frustrations are going to happen out there," Lincecum said. "I try to do my best not to show it on the field."
Before the game manager Bruce Bochy said Lincecum's woes haven't shaken the confidence of a team that always relied on him to be its stopper in the past. "Sure, we haven't won as many of Timmy's games as we're accustomed to," Bochy said. "But no, I don't think it has affected the other guys. Especially with what Zito's done; he's picked up his play and helped out the rotation."
Yes, it's come to that. Barry Zito (2-1) is picking up for Lincecum.
No one can pinpoint Lincecum's problems or even predict them. Earlier in the season, Lincecum had disastrous first innings. There was some thought that he was adjusting to his trimmed down body -- Lincecum cut out the In-N-Out double doubles in the offseason and dropped 22 pounds, a year after having bulked up. In recent outings, he's starting fine -- he retired his first six batters on Tuesday -- but has been vulnerable in one or two key innings, losing location at critical times. His velocity is down, his fastball is erratic and his change-up is not as lethal as it once was.
"In the first few outings it was me going back to the chalkboard and looking at mechanics to see what I'm not doing consistently," Lincecum said. "Today, it wasn't that at all. It was a matter of execution and not making a better pitch in a big situation. Not bearing down when I needed to."
Lincecum's problems have scouts -- employed by teams that passed on the undersized pitcher back in 2006 -- nodding wisely. Many predicted that the torque on a small body and the moving parts in Lincecum's delivery were a sure recipe for a short career.
"He's just another pitcher now," one scout told me recently.
Lincecum will never be considered "just another" pitcher to the Giants fan base, who still favor No. 55 jerseys over any other. Lincecum brought two Cy Youngs and -- most importantly -- a World Series to San Francisco and became a part of the culture with his unconventional ways: his long hair, his bust for smoking pot and his tendency to shout joyful expletives on live television. He endeared himself to San Franciscans in a way that no other athlete since Joe Montana has.
Lincecum has gone through other rough spots, most memorably in August 2010 when he lost five in a row and many of the same doubting scouts and analysts nodded wisely and spoke of Lincecum's ability in the past tense. That September Lincecum regained his effectiveness and dominated opponents through the Giants playoff run. For most of his career, his major obstacles have been the Giants inability to score runs for him; this year he's also been hurt by the Giants defensive woes, which included three more errors on Tuesday added onto the team's major league leading total (now 41).
Lincecum is still ostensibly the Giants' ace, but he's been surpassed in effectiveness in the rotation by Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. Both signed extensions recently, which will keep them in San Francisco through 2017. The Giants had tried to lockup Lincecum as well, but he opted for a two-year deal, though he didn't rule out signing an extension in the future.
With the way things are going Lincecum has suddenly lost a lot of leverage. Stuff that he used to have.