CINCINNATI -- The headline has been written before -- "Lincecum Saves Giants Season" -- but the reason for it this time is new.
A fan tuning into this NLDS for the first time in the middle innings Wednesday would have seen a familiar sight: Tim Lincecum on the mound, preserving a lead and dominating hitters.
That fan, presuming he or she watched any part of San Francisco's 2010 World Series run, surely would have thought nothing was amiss when Lincecum exited after the eighth inning with the Giants holding a sizable lead over the Reds. Just another brilliant start for the two-time Cy Young winner, eh? But a look at his final pitching line would reveal he didn't enter the game at his customary time.
Lincecum, former ace starter, has morphed into an ace reliever, a forgotten bullpen niche of yesteryore. He was a multi-inning, mid-game threat out of the bullpen and a key reason why the Giants not only won 8-3 in Game 4 to tie the series at two games apiece, but also why they are in great shape in Thursday's Game 5, thanks to his 4 1/3 innings of one-run, six-strikeout relief work that spared most of San Francisco's top relievers from having to work.
The victory set up the Division Series' first elimination game with Giants ace Matt Cain, the perfect-game thrower and three-time All-Star, facing a burgeoning ace in Mat Latos who, after three mostly crummy season-opening starts, finished the year on a 14-2 run with a barely-three ERA.
"Today is all about getting to tomorrow," Lincecum said, before later admitting: "Personally it was a great feeling for me just to be able to do my job."
Lincecum hadn't done his job in customary fashion for most of the season, suffering through a first-half in which he had a 6.42 ERA that was the second-worst among NL starters with at least 60 innings. His second-half ERA of 3.83 was better but still sub-standard for him and not enough to crack the Giants' postseason rotation. His relief appearance of 4 1/3 innings in Game 4 was longer than he lasted in six of his starts this season.
Even though he had only made two relief appearances in his professional career -- once on Opening Day in his first full big league season and once in the 2010 NLCS -- Lincecum was relegated to the bullpen this postseason. New roles can be tricky for some pitchers, but Lincecum had two advantages: he can get ready with only a handful of warm-up pitches and he had some relief experience in the elite college Cape Cod League.
On the Cape, Lincecum was a Harwich Mariners teammate of current Giants reliever George Kontos. Lincecum ranked fourth in the league in strikeouts -- one spot and one punchout behind Kontos -- despite being a reliever who trailed only starters. Kontos had a stellar 69 strikeouts in 57 innings; Lincecum had a superhuman 68 strikeouts in 39 innings with a 0.69 ERA.
"He was nasty," Kontos said of Lincecum in the Cape Cod League. "He was throwing triple-digits and punching everybody out."
Lincecum's fastball no longer reaches the mid-90s, much less touches 100. It averaged 91 miles per hour this year, two ticks off his career velocity and four ticks down from his first Cy Young season in 2008. But against the Reds he spotted it well and effectively, throwing 42 strikes on 55 pitches, as his fastball and changeup were his two standout pitches.
Similarly as impressive as his relief pitching -- he also threw two shutout frames in Game 2's loss -- has been his acceptance of his demotion. A pitcher with the track record, hardware and paycheck he has would have been forgiven for speaking out, but Lincecum hasn't done anything of the sort, understanding that he doesn't have a say and preparing for "whatever they want me to do," as he told reporters earlier this week.
"We knew Timmy would play a critical role in the series like he did tonight," Bochy said. "I love a man like this who has the talent he does and part of it was Timmy buying into what we were doing and he said, 'I just want to do anything I can to help the ball club win.' So he had a great attitude about it and carried that into the game."
Starting in Lincecum's place was Barry Zito, who wasn't on the playoff roster for any round in 2010. Zito struggled with his command and was removed in the third inning. Kontos got the last out of the third and the first out of the fourth, before yielding to Jose Mijares -- yes, Bochy wisely used a lefty specialist in the fourth inning -- who struck out Joey Votto with two men on. The next call to the bullpen was for Lincecum, who didn't leave the mound until Santiago Casilla mopped up in the ninth.
"He did exactly what we needed him to do," Giants lefthander Jeremy Affeldt, who pitched two innings on Tuesday, said. "We have a guy down there that can pick up four innings -- and he's a dominant pitcher. He's not just a 'hopefully he can get through four' [pitcher]. He's a two-time Cy Young winner."
The force of rejuvenation wasn't limited to Lincecum, of course. After smacking just three extra-base hits and scoring just four runs in the series' first three games, the Giants crushed eight extra-base hits, including three homers, while plating eight runners. San Francisco's offense, which was batting .126 in the playoffs entering the game, didn't have its first hit with a runner in scoring position this series until the fifth inning when Angel Pagan doubled.
The Giants only learned the Reds would be starting Mike Leake about four hours before the first pitch. Leake, an injury substitution to the roster for Johnny Cueto, had about the closest right/left splits you can imagine this season -- allowing an .805 OPS to righty batters and .804 to lefties -- but San Francisco's lefties crushed him, going 5-for-10 with two home runs, a double and two walks, which computes to a 1.783 OPS. The righthanded bats, meanwhile, were 1-for-7 with a sacrifice bunt for a .268 OPS.
Believe what you will about how much either momentum or homefield advantage may matter in Game 5, but the reality is that both clubs have a top starter and a great bullpen at their disposal. The Reds didn't use any of the three relievers they most often trust with late-inning leads -- Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman -- and they won the first two games in this series in part because Latos did something similar as Lincecum. Though a trained starter, he entered the game and threw four great innings of relief.
The Giants bullpen, meanwhile, has held the Reds to one run and only seven baserunners in 11 1/3 innings in the past two games. They don't have any over-taxed relievers before tomorrow's all-hands-on-deck finale because, even though he exceeded 50 pitches today, Lincecum expects to be available tomorrow.
"I'm not telling them I'm not going to be," Lincecum said.
That's a decision to be settled tomorrow, when today was all about the journey to Game 5 -- a journey made much easier thanks to a relegated ace filling a yeoman's role.