SAN FRANCISCO – After his last start against the Phillies, the eighth outing in a span of 10 by the Giants' rotation that did not qualify as a quality start, Tim Lincecum said he expected there would be some discussion among the five about righting what has been an up-and-down month and a half to start the season.
The topic was broached in the following days, Lincecum said Sunday, though apparently not in any formal setting.
"I mean, it's just kind of one of those things where we kind of kick each other in the ass," Lincecum said.
Metaphorical or not, the intended effect showed over the final three games of the Giants' series win over the Braves, punctuated by a 5-1 win Sunday in what Lincecum readily acknowledged was his best start of the season.
Lincecum held the Braves to two singles – one an infield hit – in seven shutout innings, just the third time in his career that he has gone at least that deep into a start allowing two or fewer hits and no runs.
He struck out seven and threw 111 pitches, one rotation turn after throwing 114 against the Phillies, an indication his offseason emphasis on building up strength to go deeper into games is yielding results – at least through mid-May.
Perhaps as promising for the Giants was that Lincecum did so on the heels of Matt Cain's eight-inning, three-hit outing on Friday and Madison Bumgarner's season-high 11 strikeouts in seven innings on Saturday. Those outings helped ease the rotation's combined ERA this season down to 4.25, which ranks 12th in the National League.
"I think it was just more apparent after my last start that I kind of made a point of kind of talking about it," Lincecum said of the rotation's performance. "Not necessarily throwing out, 'What's the deal, guys?' It was just, 'Let's step it up.'
"We're a really close-knit group of guys. That happens out in (batting practice), happens in here before the game, that can happen an hour before the game."
Lincecum threw his first three pitches Sunday for balls and said he took a moment on the mound to reassess. He felt he was doing something similar to his last start – bringing his arm through late compared to when his landing foot was hitting the ground – and made a point of slowing his body down to let his arm get out in front. He came back to get Jordan Schafer to ground out, then pitched around a single and a walk to end the inning.
Lincecum retired 17 of the next 19 hitters. The Braves put runners on first and third with two outs in the third, but Lincecum got cleanup hitter Justin Upton to fly out to Hunter Pence in right-center.
"He had great focus," manager Bruce Bochy said. "That's when he's at his best is when he's got that concentration every pitch, and today I thought he did. He didn't drop his guard at all when he got ahead in the count. He just pitched."
The difference was command to both sides of the plate and, at times, out of the zone to get a liberally swinging Braves lineup to chase. Aside from Ramiro Pena's infield single in the first inning, the Braves' lone hit was a line drive single by Schafer in the third. Lincecum issued two of his three walks to left-handed-hitting catcher Brian McCann.
"I think the pitches that I did throw in the zone weren't down the middle of the plate, and the ones they were hitting weren't exactly rockets," Lincecum said. "So I was missing the barrel of the bat more, and with that good things are going to happen."
The Giants supported Lincecum with three solo homers, including Pablo Sandoval's seventh career splash hit in the third. Brandon Belt hit one to left-center in the second, and Marco Scutaro got in on the fun with his first of the year to extend his hitting streak to 12 games.
After dropping Thursday's opener, the Giants outscored the Braves 23-4 over the rest of the series and treated the AT&T Park crowd to a series win over an N.L. East team for the first time since last April.
"I think these last three games were some of the better baseball we've played this year, just all around," catcher Buster Posey said. "It's definitely nice, especially against a good team like the Braves."
Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015, and read his online reports at blogs.sacbee.com/bay-areabaseball.