Overpowering Lincecum, bad call too much for hobbling Braves

Publish date:

But when AT&T Park played the Metallica anthem on Thursday night, there was, of course, no sighting of Mariano Rivera running in from the bullpen but of his antithesis, Giants ace Tim Lincecum, jogging up the dugout stairs over the third-base line, his long hair flopping with each step as he went to close what he himself had started.

Lincecum brought with him command of an unfair multitude of pitches -- including an improved slider he's fully incorporated into his arsenal only recently -- and he retired the side in order with his 13th and 14th strikeouts to close out the Braves 1-0 in a two-hit, one-walk complete-game shutout and help the Giants take the first game of their National League Division Series.

Lincecum, nicknamed "The Freak" long ago because of his high velocity, slight frame and unusual mechanics, was asked if he had ever thrown better in a major league game.

"I don't know, that's hard to judge what 'better' would be," he said. "If you come out on top, I think that's good. Shutout, as far as shutouts go, I think that's up there with one of my better ones, if I had to rate it."

If there have been two transcendent stories from the first two days of the baseball postseason, they are a virtuoso pitching performance -- RoyHalladay's no-hit postseason debut for the Phillies, about the only outing that could honestly be rated better than Lincecum's -- and the persistence of bad calls by the umpires in key spots.

This one had both.

What should have been a night solely dedicated to the celebration of Lincecum's masterpiece of a postseason debut was instead marred by the 2010 playoffs' seemingly requisite umpire controversy.

It was hard to ignore that the Giants' only run was aided by a bad call at second base. As Braves starter Lowe delivered a full-count pitch to Pat Burrell, Posey broke from first. Burrell struck out and catcher BrianMcCann's throw to second beat Posey, who was clearly tagged by second baseman Brooks Conrad before sliding into the bag. Second-base umpire Paul Emmel, however, called him safe. Posey later scored on a two-out base hit by Cody Ross.

Asked in a postgame news conference whether he was safe on the steal of second, Posey's face scrunched into a grimace, then he allowed, "I guess it's a good thing we don't have instant replay right now." Later he joked, "It was a beautiful slide, wasn't it?"

Speaking to a pool reporter after the game, Emmel, who noted that he had not seen a replay, said, "I saw him safe. That's what I called."

The rest of the night belonged to Lincecum, who rendered the Braves' bats as useless as the Reds', circa one day prior, against Halladay. After allowing a leadoff double to Omar Infante, Lincecum reminded himself that he had pitched in these situations a thousand times before and settled down.

He struck out Derrek Lee and McCann to finish the first inning and had about the most dominant inning possible in the second. Using darting fastballs early in the count and either sliders or a changeup late, Lincecum didn't just retire the side but didn't allow contact on any of the Braves' nine swings.

That's right: nine swings, nine strikes, three outs.

In all Lincecum induced 31 swing-and-miss strikes -- just more than a quarter of his 119 pitches -- many of them on high fastballs or low-and-away sliders, the latter a bit of a surprise to the Braves.

"We were informed of it," Lee said of the slider, which he said had a tight spin and stayed down in the zone, "but I've never seen him throw it like that."

Even though Lincecum's fastball velocity has declined a few miles per hour -- his average fastball registered about 94 mph in 2007 and '08 but only 91 this season -- he placed it well with great late movement.

"What he does is he keeps that fastball just above the belt so you have to work hard to keep on top of it," Lee said. "That's why you see a lot of foul balls off his fastball."

Lincecum persevered through a rough August in which he lost all five of his starts and registered a 7.82 ERA. After the game, he was asked if it was hard to believe that month had even happened, given how well he has right the ship.

"Yeah, time and time again, guys tell me that guys go through struggles, [and say], 'Timmy, you're human,'" he said, that last part with a dismissive shrug, and it was hard to argue with his implied otherworldly standards.

That the second-inning strikeout victims, the Braves' 5-6-7 hitters, consisted of Alex Gonzalez, Matt Diaz and Conrad didn't so much lessen Lincecum's accomplishment -- it's no guarantee that an All-Star team could have put his pitches in play -- as reinforce how shorthanded the Braves are right now. Gonzalez batted .240 this year. Conrad and Diaz each hit exactly .250, with Conrad having made 24 starts all year and Diaz had started only 12 times against a righty starter.

It was easy to forget how well his opponents threw the ball, and Derek Lowe deserved better. Of the four hits he allowed, at least one was playable, and that was the run-scoring hit. After intentionally walking Pablo Sandoval to face Ross with two outs in the fourth inning, Lowe's 2-0 sinker caught too much of the plate, and Ross hit it sharply to Infante at third but it skipped under his glove as he reached to his left, a play even Cox acknowledged should have been made.

"It's kind of hard right now," said Infante, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. "I haven't played there [much] in a while, but I'm going to work harder tomorrow to adapt."

With Chipper Jones and Martin Prado lost to injury, Infante and Conrad are holding down and second and third base, albeit precariously. Infante made a costly error in the regular-season finale, and on Thursday Conrad made an error for the fifth straight game.

Completing the Braves' blunders on the day was a batting practice mishap in which Game 2 starter Tommy Hanson bunted a ball that bounced up and hit him in the eye. He quickly left the field as a precaution but is thought to be fine.

A tough matchup awaits him tomorrow, less so with the Giants' lineup, which managed to score only one questionable run, and more so with San Francisco starter Matt Cain, who is almost as stingy as Lincecum in allowing runs. At least the Braves can hope he's human.