There were two itches that needed to be scratched this season. Posey's raking, Sandoval's doing fine, Cain's a well-mannered beast, Bumgarner's pitching well, Vogelsong seems like the same pitcher … really, there haven't been a lot of reasons for consternation so far. There were only two. But, hot damn, how they were frustrating.
The first was Tim Lincecum. He had a rotten start to the season; he had the 10th-best xFIP in baseball before tonight's game. The truth was somewhere in the middle. The command was weak, but the off-speed stuff was willing, which probably should have added up to a perfectly middling start. Instead, every mistake was magnified, whether in the field or on the mound. It seemed like every walk scored and every error came at the wrong time. Lincecum was in a nasty vortex.
And on Saturday, it's not like he was perfect. There was a fair amount of hard contact, and he gave up a few walks. But they were different kinds of walks -- I never felt like he knew where the ball was going in New York, whereas two of the walks tonight came on 3-2 curves that didn't miss by much.
More than that, Lincecum looked in control for the first time this season. "In control" is probably the wrong way to put it, but the Padres never seemed especially comfortable against him. Maybe they felt naked without their camouflage jerseys, aware that snipers could pick them off with a t-shirt gun at any moment. But it felt like there was a plan, and that Lincecum executed that plan more often than not.
The second itch was Brandon Belt. I don't remember rooting for a player as actively as I root for Belt -- probably Pablo Sandoval in 2010. You just pull for the danged guy so hard, which makes it even worse when he messes up. I don't really pay attention when Angel Pagan or Hector Sanchez strikes out, but when Belt does it, there's an intense, deflating feeling. The air got sucked out of me with every Belt failure, and considering that even the very best players fail 55 percent of the time, that was a lot of air-sucking.
So in a game like this, where no one else was hitting -- and a game that Lincecum deserved like few others -- how satisfying was that double from Brandon Belt? It was a Mentos of catharsis in a Diet Coke of frustration, and now I'll gladly clean all that sticky stuff all the walls. Metaphorically. I mean, don't read too much into that. But, holy crap, how satisfying was that? Belt worked the count, and drove a tough pitch to the opposite field. It was as if millions of SF Gate commenters suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.
The Giants' season to this point has been aight. Some disappointments, some good stuff. But there were two things that really bugged me so far, and both of them aren't a concern after tonight. That's the sign of a good game.
Everything worked out! Hooray! But who else was throwing shoes and remotes and foodstuffs at the TV when Lincecum came out for the eighth? Here's a guy who's scuffled, who's struggled with velocity and location, and who's pitched in miserable luck all season. He willed his way through seven strong innings. His pitch count was up. The bullpen was well rested. He was line for the win. What more was there to gain?
Risk versus reward. The risk of sending Lincecum back out there was that he lost the game, that he screwed up and undid everything he was trying to do in the first place. The risk was that an already tired arm was going to throw more pitches than it needed to.
The reward was that Lincecum would gain an immeasurable amount of confidence, which he desperately needed. I mean, I don't know if he desperately needed it. I'd like to think that he didn't need an extra bolt of confidence -- he's had a rough start, but the two Cy Youngs and the championship should have kept the doubt goblins away for at least another month or so, right? -- but I'll be honest here, and I don't want to ruin my credibility here, but I've never spoken to Lincecum in my life. I don't know if he goes through bouts of doubt when he struggles at baseball-throwing for the second or third time in his life. No idea.
Bochy has spoken to him. So I can almost give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to throwing Lincecum back out there. It might have felt like the right thing to do, where the rewards were obvious and the risks weren't a big deal, considering how well Lincecum was throwing.
But from an outsider's perspective, that move seemed insane. Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez were ready. They're good. When Lincecum's going well, there's still an argument to be made that the Romo/Lopez are obviously preferable to an eighth-inning Lincecum working well past 100 pitches. When you add in the struggles of Lincecum, the decision to keep him out there looks ludicrous.
It all worked out, though. And where Lincecum could feel really good about throwing seven quality innings, now he can feel really, really good about digging deep and getting out of trouble in the eighth, like you'd expect from an ace-type. Maybe that's worth something that's hard to quantify. Maybe. Please don't do it again, Bochy.
If Lincecum didn't go out for the eighth, though, we wouldn't have had the chance to watch Chase Headley wave at a back-door slider. Man alive, what a beautiful pitch that was.
I'm pretty sure the Giants would have lost that game in 2010 on a Luis Durango pop fly that hit an egret mid-flight.