Tim Lincecum’s fastball, once an overpowering weapon, now regularly registers in the upper 80s on radar guns, and through his first four starts this season he was throwing it less frequently than ever. But even at 88 mph, the pitch can still be an effective one for the Giants’ right-hander, as he showed Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels in his best start of the year.
Lincecum threw eight scoreless innings as the Giants completed a sweep of the Angels with a 5-0 win at AT&T Park, scattering three singles over his longest outing since last July 1, when he blanked the St. Cardinals through eight. For the first time since last April, Lincecum had Buster Posey behind the plate for his start, and the two followed a game plan that used a heavier dose of fastballs to set up Lincecum’s array of off-speed pitches.
According to the analytics site FanGraphs, Lincecum had thrown his fastball on about 43 percent of pitches over his first four starts. He established a different pattern early Sunday by throwing nine fastballs on 12 pitches in the first inning, and overall recorded 61 of his 106 pitches in the 85-to-90 mph range, which is now typical territory for his two- and four-seamers. Of the 28 hitters he faced, Lincecum started 19 with a fastball.
“I think that was his game plan,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He did use it well, pitched in with it and away. And I think it helped set up his other pitches. That’s what we talk a lot about with Timmy – his fastball command really can determine how his game goes. And I thought he had really good command (Sunday).”
Lincecum, for his part, claimed he “didn’t try to change too much” the game plan from his prior starts, but said: “I throw a lot of off-speed, so I tried to pick my spots to throw the fastball and tried not to throw it down the middle.” Overall, he said, “I was keeping (pitches) to the sides of the plate I wanted for the most part, and if I was missing, for the most part it was down.”
That kept the Angels hitters from elevating and driving Lincecum’s pitches. He recorded 11 of his first 13 outs via ground ball or strikeout and erased an error by third baseman Casey McGehee to start the second inning by getting left-hander Matt Joyce to ground into a double play.
In that at-bat, Lincecum got ahead of Joyce 0-2 on two fastballs, then induced the double play on a 1-2 fastball. In Joyce’s next at-bat, Lincecum started Joyce with two changeups, then threw two fastballs and struck Joyce out swinging at a 2-2 changeup in the dirt. Two innings later, he got ahead of Joyce 0-2 on a curveball and changeup and finished Joyce off swinging on a high fastball at 87 mph.
“I just think Timmy did a nice job of keeping them off-balance,” Posey said. “(He) never really got into too many patterns, elevated when he needed to, was able to get off-speed over for strikes behind in the count. Just did a nice job.”
Staked to a 2-0 lead after the first inning – on consecutive homers by Nori Aoki and Joe Panik, the first time the Giants have started a game hitting back-to-back home runs since May 27, 1964 – and a 5-0 lead after the fifth, Lincecum did not allow multiple runners in an inning until the sixth, when Chris Iannetta hit a leadoff single and Erick Aybar drew a walk.
That set the table for the heart of the Angels’ order. Lincecum, though, got ahead of Mike Trout with a swinging strike on a 1-1 fastball, then threw a changeup that Trout lifted to center field for an out. Albert Pujols hit a sharp grounder up the middle to Panik at second base, who was shifted the right way and threw Pujols out at first. And Lincecum induced a harmless flyout to center from Kole Calhoun to escape the inning.
“After getting into that jam, it’s just about executing down in the zone and kind of seeing what happens from there,” Lincecum said. “I’m not striking out a lot of guys like I used to, so just tried to induce some poor contact.”
In all, Lincecum retired his final nine hitters before exiting to a standing ovation from the AT&T Park crowd after the eighth. While the Giants have won just two of his five starts, Lincecum’s 2.40 ERA is the lowest of the starting rotation, a tick better than the 2.51 of rookie Chris Heston. He even collected two singles Sunday and drew a walk – the third time in his career Lincecum has reached base three times.
“I think,” he said afterward, “my confidence was pretty high today.”