Tim Lincecum's nickname makes more sense all the time. He came to San Francisco as The Freak, known for a slight build that poured out fastballs at 95 mph, a fondness for back flips and a disdain for the nearly religious ritual of icing a pitcher's arm after every game. He did things his own way, not stubbornly, or even eccentrically. Just his way. It worked spectacularly, yielding two Cy Young Awards and a World Series ring in his first four major-league seasons.
On Wednesday night, the mystery over whether Lincecum would start Game 4 of the NLCS, or any game at all, yielded the latest brand of freakishness. After losing Game 3 to the Cardinals, Giants manager Bruce Bochy announced that, yes, the most decorated player on his team would be promoted from middle relief.
Bochy had no other reasonable choice. The other options, Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner, had not delivered much beyond anxiety in their postseason appearances.
There's more to it than a default, though. Lincecum seduced Bochy. He beguiled his way back into the rotation with three stalwart relief appearances that blurred the memories of a 10-15 regular season, a 5.18 ERA and two wan final starts.
One can assume that he barely made the playoff roster at all -- who carries five starters in the postseason? -- except for the quirks that allow him to relieve in a way that few starters can, and a history that demanded his presence. The Giants didn't owe it to Lincecum to keep him for the playoffs. They owed it to themselves.
If Bochy has to watch another team in the World Series, he doesn't want to do it wondering whether he's stuck in his armchair because he gave up on Lincecum. If The Freak falters badly as the Game 4 starter and the Giants fall to a 3-1 deficit in this series, the manager can't second-guess himself. He can question other choices. He can wonder whether he should have rested Bumgarner at the end of the regular season. But not go to Lincecum when he had offered even a sliver of a reason to do so? Some cards must be played.
When he went to the bullpen at AT&T Park, even during an abysmal Game 2 blowout against the Reds, the building vibrated with joy. He threw four quasi warm-up pitches. They were all tossed short of the rubber, and he spent most of the time watching Brandon Belt get the Giants' only hit off Bronson Arroyo. At the end of the half-inning, he didn't appear remotely ready to go in.
But he did go in, and the vibration revved up to ecstasy. The sound was very different from the MVP chants that greet Buster Posey's every at-bat. The catcher is the city's new baseball hero. But Lincecum remains its son.
When he took the mound, he responded to that energy. Things looked almost easy for him again, as natural as they had been when he won all the hardware. He went two innings in relief of Bumgarner that night, allowing nothing. In Game 4 in Cincinnati, he earned a win in relief of the quickly dispatched Zito, going 4 1/3 innings, allowing a run and three hits.
Lincecum's control has been an extraordinary deviation from the messy regular season. But in Game 1 against the Cardinals Sunday night, the ace middle reliever wobbled creatively. He got out of his first inning on 14 pitches. Not bad, right? Well, eight of them were balls. He registered a strikeout, a walk and then a double play. He walked to the dugout as if he were sneaking away from a piece of mischief, knowing he'd barely made his getaway. This is what it means to be The Freak.
The theatricality of a recent two-time Cy Young winner coming out of the bullpen was offset by the lack of drama from Lincecum. From the beginning, he accepted Bochy's decision to open the playoffs with him out of the starting rotation.
“I know the reasons why,” he said. “It’s about earning it. It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s about what have you done for them lately. My last two starts weren’t very good.”
Lincecum spent a fair amount of time discussing the decision the day of the playoff opener. He avoided the media more in the past, as he discovered that celebrity didn't suit him. He preferred to be the guy with a hoodie pulled over his baseball cap.
He may change his style again in the future. He came into the 2011 season with extra bulk and didn't like that. So he came into 2012 extra-lithe, having given up his beloved McDonald's in the offseason. When the first half of the season curdled, he started adding some weight, regaining some equilibrium.
But he never corrected the way he had after a dreadful August of 2010. Back then Lincecum started running stairs, building his lower body. He soared in September and began the Giants' run to a World Series parade with a 1-0, 14-strikeout win in the playoff opener against the Braves. He made the last start that year, too. When the Giants finished off the Rangers, some teammates boosted Lincecum onto their shoulders. The photo of him aloft, his long hair in the wind, became the iconic image of the championship.
There's no reason to believe that he can’t do that can do again. But the question of what he can do, how far he can rebound from middle relief, is irresistible, tantalizing. It's a chance to show again what it means to be The Freak.