Lincecum struggles through first true funk
SAN FRANCISCO – The Freak is in a funk.
Tim Lincecum is showing signs he is human after all in his third full major league season. He acknowledges his confidence is shaken and he’s trying to find himself.
The San Francisco Giants ace and two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner has lost three straight starts for the first time in his career. Lincecum (11-7) is turning to video and long discussions with pitching coach Dave Righetti, looking to regain the edge that has made him one of baseball’s most feared pitchers in recent years despite his diminutive frame.
The Giants are counting on him returning to top form, and soon. His next chance comes Saturday at St. Louis.
The struggles are bothering Lincecum, and he doesn’t hide that fact.
His fastball velocity is down from the mid-90s to high-80s or low-90s, causing people to wonder if he’s worn down from the extensive workload or hurting. He even brought back his 2009 warmup tune of “Electric Feel” by alternative band MGMT for Sunday’s loss to the NL West-leading San Diego Padres, trying to get back into a groove.
“It can be a little bit (tough) out there,” Lincecum said of losing confidence. “You get frustrated when things don’t go your way or the way they have been. You just have to keep coming to the field every day working with a purpose and knowing that it’s going to come back. That’s pretty much where I’m trying to get to.”
He has tweaked his mechanics and tried to clear his mind, knowing full well he’s probably thinking too much on the mound and it could be making things worse. He has been trying to find the smallest of positives even when things go poorly.
Lincecum struck out the side in the first inning of his last start and everything seemed fine again. But by the second, he had run into trouble. He lasted only 3 2-3 innings for his second-shortest outing of 2010.
He said returning to his old mechanics isn’t what hurt him.
“That really wasn’t a factor, other than just wrapping your head around doing too many things, trying to change too many things to fix things,” said Lincecum, already a three-time All-Star at age 26. “It’s kind of what I’ve been doing the last few outings. Like I said, getting back to simplifying things and trying to be as optimistic as possible.
“I’m a big thinker, my brain never stops working. You start focusing on the wrong things or maybe the negatives and not the positives as much. They exacerbate themselves and they start to manifest and just build up on each other. I can’t keep searching. I just have to go out there and pitch.”
San Francisco needs its ace for a stretch run that should make for a drama-filled September. The Giants haven’t been to the playoffs since 2003 and anything short of a postseason trip for this bunch will be a major disappointment.
The club was in the heart of the NL wild card race until mid-September last season, then general manager Brian Sabean upgraded his roster for 2010 in an effort to finally get over the hump.
Lincecum is 1-3 with a 6.15 ERA over his last six starts. He has allowed 14 earned runs in only 14 innings in his last three outings, with seven walks and 17 strikeouts.
“I want to throw strikes, quality strikes where I want to throw them,” Lincecum said. “My fastball’s kind of all over the place right now. Just getting that down-and-away fastball, that’s what I have to get back.”
Padres manager Bud Black isn’t ready to count out the shaggy-haired guy who arrived on the major league scene with the nickname “Franchise” before later being dubbed “Freak” for his funky delivery and quirky way. He used to be mistaken for a bat boy when he got to the ballpark because of his small size.
“I’ve seen enough of this guy over the years to know he’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” Black said after the Padres pinned five earned runs on Lincecum in an 8-2 win Sunday.
Black, a former big league pitcher, believes hitters around baseball might be getting more familiar with Lincecum’s stuff and thus having more success of late. The 10th overall draft pick in 2006 was largely unknown when he burst into the big leagues in May 2007 less than a year removed from the University of Washington.
The Padres beat Lincecum on Sunday while facing the hard-throwing right-hander for the first time since losing to him on July 9, 2009.
“You can see that he’s not dialed in with his location and hasn’t thrown as well as he’s capable the last few outings,” San Diego’s Chase Headley said. “He’s searching.”
Simplifying things is Lincecum’s plan. It’s basic stuff, really. Manager Bruce Bochy doesn’t seem overly concerned about his top pitcher.
“He’s got to put this behind him,” Bochy said. “You start logging that many pitches it’s going to catch up with you.”
In February, the Giants rewarded Lincecum with a $23 million, two-year contract – able to see past his offseason marijuana arrest. Lincecum repeatedly apologized for embarrassing himself and the franchise.
He struggled in spring training this year then began to look like his old dominant self again.
Lincecum recorded an NL-best 261 strikeouts last season and tied for the league lead with four complete games and two shutouts. He went 15-7 with a 2.48 ERA in 32 starts and 225 1-3 innings. That came after his breakout 2008 campaign.
Listed at 5-foot-11 and a generous 170 pounds – tiny by today’s standards for a big league pitcher – Lincecum was 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA and a major league-best 265 strikeouts in ’08.
The Giants are confident he will bounce back from this stretch and pitch like the Lincecum of old.
“There’s a lot of things in the game you have to focus on. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around too many things,” the pitcher said. “I just have to simplify things and do what I know how to do.”
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.