CINCINNATI -- It was only the fourth inning of NLDS Game 4 -- two outs and two on in a one-run game -- when Giants manager Bruce Bochy handed the ball to Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young Award winner turned middle reliever because of his regular season struggles.
"Help me out here," Bochy said to him on the mound.
"Don't worry," Lincecum told his manager. "I got this."
Said Bochy later, "He had that look in his eye."
Lincecum immediately whiffed Ryan Ludwick. With that, Lincecum began an iconic outing that recalled the emergency relief Pedro Martinez provided Boston in the 1999 ALDS at Cleveland. Lincecum has won Cy Young Awards and World Series games, but 4 1/3 innings of middle relief carried memorable meaning given the circumstances. Not only did Lincecum get the win as San Francisco pulled away for an 8-3 triumph to force a Game 5, he also salvaged a huge part of a 2012 season in which he lost a league-worst 15 games, posted a 5.18 ERA and lost his place in the rotation to guys like Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito.
Bochy had told Lincecum in Los Angeles during the Giants' last series of the regular season that he would be in the bullpen for the NLDS. Bochy found an interesting reaction from Lincecum: relief. The ace knew he hadn't pitched well, and seemed freed of the responsibility of being the ace with lesser stuff. He told Bochy he was eager to help the team in any role out of the 'pen. Bochy left the meeting feeling good that he would see a better Lincecum.
But this? Wow. This was as sharp as Lincecum has looked all year. This was not just about the freedom of a reduced role, but a return to his proper mechanics. Lincecum is a Formula One engine: when the parts move in the right calibration, it's beautiful, powerful machinery to behold.
For Lincecum, the key is his arm swing on the takeaway from his glove. When he takes the ball behind his buttocks, everything is on time. But when he takes the ball straight down and it doesn't get behind his back, he loses his rhythm. In Game 4, he went all F1 on the Reds. The baseball was back behind his buttocks, and the old Lincecum was back.
And give Bochy credit once again for managing every drop out of an elimination game. After using four pitchers to get the last 10 outs of Game 3, he used
After Game 2, when I remarked to Lincecum that his stuff looked so sharp in relief, he replied, "I had no choice." The inference was that by getting thrust into the middle of a game, Lincecum didn't have to worry about giving the Giants length or trying to get the same hitters out three or four times. Instead, he junked his famous windup, pitched exclusively out of the stretch, and went to full-on attack mode. He brought the same aggressive mentality and stuff to Game 4.
The two outings raised a knee-jerk question: Does Lincecum belong in the bullpen long term? The answer is a resounding no. Lincecum is a starting pitcher finding his stuff out of the bullpen. You don't take an elite starter and let him devolve into a less valuable piece at age 28 and while making $22 million next year. In fact, should the Giants complete their comeback against the Reds with a win in Game 5, Lincecum belongs back in the rotation for the NLCS.
Give Joe Girardi credit. The Yankees manager was stubborn enough to keep Alex Rodriguez in the three hole in his batting order for ALDS Game 3, but not stubborn enough to stick with the slumping star when he needed a run in the ninth inning. Raul Ibañez won the game for New York, first by tying the game with a home run when hitting for Rodriguez, then belting a walkoff homer in the 12th.
It was an all-time memorable night for Ibañez. But it wasn't possible unless Girardi made the right move by putting Rodriguez on the bench. It was a bold move because of Rodriguez's reputation and star status, but, just as when Joe Torre batted Rodriguez eighth in the 2006 ALDS, it was the right baseball move. Rodriguez was overmatched then and he has been overmatched by power pitchers now. Girardi finally gave in to the obvious -- and did so just in time.
What a picture in Yankee Stadium last night: the Yankees trying to win a game in extra innings while Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera -- representing $50 million or salary, or nearly all of what Oakland pays its entire team -- stood in the dugout as bystanders, none of them in the game. The headline was left to be written by Ibañez. But it was made possible by Girardi.
Outfielder Hunter Pence has been with the Giants for only a little more than two months, but he already has become the vocal leader of the team. Before Game 3, an elimination game for San Francisco, Pence gathered his team in the dugout and implored them -- and I'll have to clean this up mightily -- "This is the best team I've ever played on and this is the most fun I've ever had. I'm not ready for this to end. I'm not ready to home tonight. I'm not ready to go home tomorrow. And I'm not ready to go home the day after tomorrow. Look every one of your teammates in the eyes. And there is the reason to keep playing."
Thusly inspired, the Giants squeezed out a 2-1 win in 10 innings. So yesterday, Pence huddled again with his teammates in the dugout before Game 4 to give another inspirational speech. The Giants won again, 8-3. Guess what Pence is doing before Game 5 today.
The Giants now have a slogan that recalls the "Happy Flight" lucky charm of the Cardinals last year.
"'We'll see you tomorrow,'" Pence said with a laugh.
The Washington Nationals can't win without Stephen Strasburg. They'd be dominating the Cardinals if Operation Shutdown Stephen was never in effect. Well, that's the sloppy narrative some people want you to believe, anyway. Nevermind that the Cardinals are the best clutch hitting team in the league that just wears out staffs. Or that the Nationals strike out way too much to be a consistent offensive team against good pitching. No, the entire series has to be about Strasburg, right?
Here's what people are leaving out of the narrative: Strasburg was an ordinary starter in the second half of the season as he ran out of gas. People make it sound like what Washington did was the equivalent of the Tigers shutting down Justin Verlander. No, folks. From June 25 until shutdown, Strasburg was 6-5 with a 3.94 ERA. The Nationals were 7-7 in his last 14 starts. Does that sound like a guaranteed win? He was not the Nationals' ace -- that was Gio Gonzalez, who could actually take the ball deep into games.
Are the Nationals a better team with Strasburg? Of course. But let's temper things, folks. Not having a pitcher in his seventh month after he was leaking oil in his first year pitching in the big leagues over six months does not decide an entire NLDS.