NEW YORK – Tim Lincecum had the better part of an hour to tamp down his frustration and collect his talking points.
Still, he spoke in barely more than a whisper. His words trailed off and trembled. His voice was gaunt.
“Just the last inning bit me in the ass,” said Lincecum, who left a 1-1 game with the bases loaded, picked a seat in the dugout and then sat on a tack when George Kontos served up a grand slam to Alex Rodriguez Friday night.
The Giants lost 5-1 to the New York Yankees. Lincecum lost. Officially, at least.
“Just tough to watch and tough to put somebody in that kind of situation,” Lincecum said. “I wasted a lot of pitches that inning and I didn’t attack the zone as much as I did the previous six.”
Lincecum has had his share of hard-luck starts this season, especially in this much improved second half. The Yankees had five hits and maybe two were well struck. One of those, Alfonso Soriano’s home run in the second inning, would’ve been a coast-around-first base single at AT&T Park. Here in the Bronx, it was a solo home run.
The Yankees’ rally in the seventh began when first baseman Brandon Belt peeled off his pursuit of a weak grounder to the right side because he saw second baseman Joaquin Arias make an aggressive move for it. Arias tweaked his hamstring on the play. He never got close.
Then came a changeup that brushed a jersey and a potential step-and-throw double play that wasn’t turned – although in fairness to Pablo Sandoval, even an on-target heave across the diamond wouldn’t have guaranteed the third out.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy let Lincecum go as long as possible – all the way to 121 pitches – before a five-pitch walk to Ichiro Suzuki loaded the bases and forced his hand.
Then Rodriguez lunged at Kontos' 2-1 fastball, and Lincecum barely watched it clear the fence before he jumped up and bounded down the stairs to the clubhouse, muttering in obvious frustration.
Lincecum had retired A-Rod on a pop-up, a ground out and a strikeout. Did he have enough left to face him one more time?
“Yeah, I mean, I did pretty well in the previous at-bats against him, but that’s not up to me,” Lincecum said. “That’s the manager’s call.”
(Said Kontos: “The thing I’m upset about is Timmy had guys on base and that’s a big spot and it’s my job to get him out.”)
Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson were 0 for 9 against Lincecum. He struck out his 1,500th batter, too, becoming one of just three pitchers – along with Tom Seaver and Bert Blyleven – to reach that mark in just his seventh big league season. There are only four pitchers to amass more strikeouts than Lincecum in a Giants uniform. All four are in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s cool but we lost,” Lincecum said. “A loss is a loss and at the end of the day it’s hard to swallow regardless of how it happens. You look back at the way you could have done something different or change them. That’s the kind of guy I am and that’s the way I’m looking at it now.”
He is not the same guy who overslept and missed a flight to Cincinnati his rookie year and earned a scolding by Barry Bonds, of all people, in front of the entire team. He is not the same guy who, in his last trip to Yankee Stadium (the previous iteration, anyway) for the 2008 All-Star Game, ended up in the hospital under suspicious circumstances. He is not the same guy who shows up when you Google “Lincecum” and “Hazel Dell.”
Taking the mound Friday night at Yankee Stadium, finally, you got the sense that Lincecum wanted badly to prove himself. He might have screwed up back in 2008. He might have caused many to wonder in silence and some to gossip out loud. This was a chance to show, in front of the brightest lights, that his adolescence is at an end.
He does not burst from the van in “Fast Times,” grin his way to the mound, let the locks flow and cheddar through whatever color uniform he happens to be facing. He studies hitters now. He tries to exploit weaknesses. He buckles down.
For the first time, he faced Rodriguez, who broke into the big leagues with the Seattle Mariners when Lincecum was an undersized 10-year-old Little Leaguer on his way to becoming an undersized Cy Young Award winner.
As it so happened, Ichiro Suzuki batted leadoff in front of A-Rod. You began to wonder if Jay Buhner’s bald head would crown from the dugout, too.
Was Lincecum an A-Rod fan?
“I was a Mariner fan so yeah, anyone who played under the cap, I followed them closely,” he said. “At a young age, it’s kind of hard not to know about guys like that.
“It was a little surreal because I’ve gotten the chance to face Ichiro before but I’d never faced A-Rod. I was trying to make it as simple a situation as I can. Not put myself in any awe of them. I was kind of going at them like they were major leaguers just like I am.”
From the start, Lincecum's stuff had so much luster that he dominated major leaguers before he thought like one. Now he does. The stuff still shines, too, when you angle it to the light.
And on a night when he gets royally jobbed in every sense, taking a loss and four earned runs when he exited a 1-1 game, he can set it aside, and in a thin voice, he can strive to be better.
Some will wonder why Bruce Bochy extended Lincecum to 121 pitches. Others will wonder why he didn’t stick with him.
And there will be a subset of fans who get in a twist because they’ll assume Bochy wanted Lincecum to get through the seventh inning so he’d be the pitcher of record if the Giants happened to push ahead in the eighth.
That means the manager is letting his decisions be influenced by a stat that most right-thinking evaluators now understand to be kind of pointless.
Here’s what those fans are missing: The win is still important to most pitchers. And therefore, it’s important to the manager. You need your players to feel like you trust them, and you’ll give them rope. That’s one of the reasons Bochy has been such a good playoff manager while shuffling roles, including some extreme changes. He’s earned that capital by the way he manages his players in the regular season.
Or you could just set aside that whole debate and point out that Santiago Casilla was unavailable, Sandy Rosario was hurt and Heath Hembree still hasn’t been asked to clamp the lid on a pressure cooker in the big leagues yet.
Quick review after covering my first game in new Yankee: I like it. It looks familiar but brighter, more comfortable. It's also more sterile.
In an interview I'll always cherish, Harry Caray once told me that nothing will harm baseball's health and popularity as long as a working family of four can afford to go to a game. I think that's the smartest thing anyone in baseball has ever said to me.