SAN FRANCISCO — Different reporters asked Tim Lincecum several times about the possibility of him starting Game 4 in the NLCS. The San Francisco Giants relief pitcher of the moment pursed his lips and politely answered.
"I don't know," Lincecum said after perhaps the fifth time. "It's not up to me."
Lincecum finds himself in a tough spot, wanting to say the right thing and do whatever thing the Giants ask him to do. He turned in two scoreless innings Sunday in Game 1, the fifth and sixth, holding the St. Louis Cardinals after they had jumped to a six-run lead against left-hander Madison Bumgarner. The Giants struck for four runs in the fourth inning, but the St. Louis bullpen stifled them from there and the Cardinals hung on for a 6-4 victory at AT&T Park.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy has said Lincecum remains a possibility to start Game 4 in St. Louis on Thursday, and his 24-pitch relief appearance doesn't preclude that.
"He only threw two innings and he was pretty efficient," said Bochy, who also is considering left-hander Barry Zito for Game 4. "We still have our options there. We got within two and he kept us there, he gave us a chance to come back. He's still available if we want in Game 4."
Lincecum said he could pitch in relief again in Game 2 on Monday night if asked, though Bochy said he probably won't ask. If allowed to answer with impunity, Lincecum probably would prefer to be starting and that's it, like in other seasons. But this hasn't been like any other season for Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young Award winner who finished with a career-worst 5.18 ERA in 33 starts. He led the league in earned runs allowed, losses and wild pitches. His walks per-inning, hits per-inning and home-run rate were the worst of his career.
But he's been great in relief the entire postseason. In 8 1/3 innings, he has allowed three hits, 1 earned run, one walk and has struck out nine. While numbers like that are valuable in the pen, it doesn't make sense to keep him there if the Giants think they can get vintage or semi-vintage Lincecum as a starter. Lincecum doesn't want to get his hopes up about starting if it's not a sure thing. He'd probably rather not think about it at all, because thinking can lead to worrying.
"I don't want to have a growing expectation of starting and then not start. I just want to do what they want me to do," Lincecum said. "I don't want to go out there and think, 'Hey, I deserve to be starting or I should be starting' and 'What am I doing in relief?' I just want to go out there with the mentality of, 'If they need me, wherever the need me, I'm going to try and get my outs.' That's good enough for me."
The Giants also might put Lincecum back in the rotation because some of their other starters aren't exactly reliable. Bumgarner allowed all of St. Louis' runs and each of its eight hits — including two home runs — over 3 2/3 innings. Nine of the 20 batters he faced reached base. It's his second straight poor performance in the playoffs, and Bumgarner didn't pitch all that well in his final seven starts of the regular season. We're talking Aug. 20 for his most recent outstanding outing.
"Even in cases where the stuff behind it might not be as sharp, I've got to find a way to get it where it's supposed to go," Bumgarner said. "I was just missing over the plate a little bit."
He's penciled in to start Game 5. Maybe.
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