SAN FRANCISCO Can we call this a situation now? Or maybe it's a growing worry a creaky beam in a Giants foundation of championship hopes.
Ace Tim Lincecum was slapped around again Monday night, surrendering all five runs in a 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies and their ace, Roy Halladay.
Yes, it's only three lousy starts for Lincecum. A long season lies ahead.
But it doesn't work for the Giants without Lincecum being an ace, and it didn't work again Monday as the Giants also continued kicking the ball around while failing to get the big hit when needed.
"The shame is we let this game get away in the first inning," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "The damage was done."
This was a highly anticipated matchup of elite starters. But instead it was a juxtaposition of pitching fortunes, with Halladay prevailing while going eight gutty innings despite being less than stellar.
Meanwhile, Lincecum was gone after six innings while continuing a troubling stumble out of the gate.
The signs of suddenly vanishing excellence remained after struggles at Arizona and Colorado and in most of his spring training starts.
Lincecum's fastball command was erratic. When Lincecum missed the targets catcher Buster Posey set for him early, which he did often, he missed right over the plate. When he was forced to pitch out of the stretch, he was particularly vulnerable, as if the Phillies knew what he would throw.
As usual, Lincecum was calm afterward. He called his first three starts, where he stands 0-2 with a 10.54 ERA, as a "small sample size."
With a wispy pitcher who is listed generously at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, each start is always about getting his arm and body movement in sync with a brain that is focused on scores of details and nuances of each pitch.
If anything, Lincecum admitted afterward he is thinking too much. The Phillies did much of their damage on two-strike counts. Conscious he walks too many batters, Lincecum fought himself in his mind. Instead of wasting a pitch in the first inning, he delivered fat ones instead.
Even without injured sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the aging Phillies pounced on Lincecum in the first inning, just as the Diamondbacks and Rockies did. Only this was worse.
As has been the case too often already this season, a Giants miscue in the field an inexcusable lapse in concentration opened the door for trouble Lincecum could not avoid.
After retiring leadoff hitter Juan Pierre, Linceum got Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco to lift what should have been a fly-ball out to center fielder Angel Pagan. It was Pagan's job to take charge and call off approaching right fielder Melky Cabrera, but Pagan suddenly became indecisive.
He looked at Cabrera, Cabrera looked at him, and the ball dropped. Polanco was on second. Lincecum began pitching out of the stretch. Bad things happened.
Lincecum walked shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Right fielder Hunter Pence crushed a pitch that Lincecum left over the plate, scoring Polanco. Center fielder Shane Victorino poked a single to center, scoring Rollins. First baseman Laynce Nix crushed a double, scoring two more, and it was suddenly 4-0 before some fans could eat their garlic fries.
"It's how you respond to it," Lincecum said. "I kept grinding."
Lincecum left an enticing pitch up in the zone in the fourth inning, which Halladay smacked for the Phillies' fifth run.
Between that stroke an the first inning, Bochy and Lincecum tried to put a positive spin on the rest of Lincecum's night. He struck out six and walked only one.
"I'm going to take the positives of this night and build on them," Lincecum said. "I'm not bothered at all."
Bochy clearly was bothered with the dropped ball and the Giants' continued failure to drive in runners. They were 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position after going 0 for 11 Sunday a little slice of the wretched aspects of their 2011 season.
The Giants need those hits if they hope to stay with surging Arizona and the fast-starting Los Angeles Dodgers. But mostly, and urgently, they need to get their ace to be an ace again.