OAKLAND — Tim Lincecum has always looked at peace before big starts. He is the rare starting pitcher who talks openly with teammates and reporters in the hours before first pitch, and that was the case as he prepared for his Angels debut.
But behind the smile Saturday morning was a bundle of nerves. Lincecum couldn’t stop tapping his feet as he sat with teammates and watched a Euro 2016 game. After his return to the big leagues, he admitted that he barely slept Friday night.
As it turned out, there wasn’t all that much to worry about.
Lincecum’s first start for anyone but the Giants was a rousing success. He gave up four hits and one run over six innings, leading the Angels to a 7-1 win over the A’s. After 108 wins for the Giants, Lincecum has one in the American League.
“I didn’t necessarily see this game going as well as it did, but it panned out and gave me a little more confidence knowing that I can push through the next game,” Lincecum said. “I know that’s tough to kind of expect for a pitcher that’s been through a lot and done a lot, but I’m trying to move on and trying to become a different player.”
[INSTANT REPLAY: A's routed by Angels in Lincecum's return]
In a way, this was the pitcher Lincecum hoped to be two years ago, when he came to camp, had a conversation with veteran Tim Hudson, and insisted he wanted to pitch to “crappy contact.”
“I’m not pumping the cheese anymore like I used to,” Lincecum pointed out Saturday, smiling.
In big spots, he was able to get big outs on the ground, mixing a fastball that sat 89-90 early with that familiar changeup. Lincecum teetered just once, in the third, but he got out of that inning with a grounder to first. Nine of his 18 outs came on the ground, just two via strikeout.
“I wasn’t getting to counts that I’d like to to get strikeouts, but they were putting the ball on the ground and (the contact) wasn’t very good,” he said.
The A’s drew 25,078 on a warm Saturday, included a couple thousand who gathered along the line in right and gave Lincecum a loud ovation when he walked out of the dugout 25 minutes before the first pitch. That applause turned into a loud standing ovation from most of the Coliseum when Lincecum took the mound for the bottom of the first.
“It was pretty incredible,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that but they came out today and they showed their support. It's nice, obviously, being close to where I started and having my Bay Area fans here. It definitely made it feel more like a home game to me.”
Lincecum's first big league pitch since June 27 of last year was an 89 mph fastball that Billy Burns took for a ball. Burns flied out to right, Coco Crisp grounded to short and Stephen Vogt hit a high pop-up down the left field line that appeared to clinch an easy inning. But left fielder Shane Robinson and third baseman Yunel Escobar simply looked at each other after converging, allowing the ball to drop foul. Vogt followed with a double but Lincecum struck Danny Valencia out on three pitches, the final one a diving changeup.
Lincecum worked around a single in the second but his day threatened to go off the rails in the third. With two outs and a runner on he walked Vogt on four pitches. Valencia followed by hitting a 3-0 fastball up the middle to get the A’s a run, and Lincecum loaded the bases when he drilled Kris Davis. He got out of the jam, though, with Jed Lowrie rolling over meekly to first base.
Lincecum cruised through the middle innings, throwing 10 pitches in the fourth and 13 in a clean fifth. The Angels hit two early homers — one by Mike Trout — and they gave Lincecum a huge cushion with a five-run sixth.
That outburst wasn’t all positive. Lincecum had to sit for 31 minutes, and when he came out for the sixth he walked Valencia. Davis hit a fastball into the dirt and the Angels turned two. On Lincecum’s 98th and final pitch, Lowrie lined out to left.
Lincecum walked off the mound to another standing ovation and was met in front of the dugout by Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who applauded and offered a handshake.
“He’s what we had expected from how he pitched his starts down in Triple-A,” Scioscia said. “Tim was just grinding out there and competing and he used all his pitches. He’s got a real good feel for what he needs to do.”
Lincecum surprised Scioscia by showing up at 9:15 a.m. and he spent much of the ensuing time getting to know new teammates. He’s the new guy, but also immediately one of the biggest stars in the clubhouse. One young teammate was caught gaping as Lincecum walked by, saying, “I grew up watching him.”
The path forward is an unfamiliar one for Lincecum, who is trying to reestablish himself for a team that has no hope of competing in this even year. He said should “go back to normal” now, and the nerves should dissipate.
“It just kind of felt like riding a bike again,” Lincecum said. “You get in the rhythm of the game and just read them and work from there.”
He’ll have a chance to keep that rhythm in his next start, which also comes against the A’s, this time down in Anaheim. Over time, fans will get used to seeing him in red. Lincecum said the sight wasn’t all that jarring when he put the familiar No. 55 back on, this time in a different color.
“I don’t think it looks weird,” he said. “It looks pretty good.”
The color represents a fresh start. So far, it couldn’t be going any better.
After hip surgery, Lincecum said he physically feels better than he has in four years. Now, it's about finding consistent results.
“You try to scratch what’s been going on the last few years and move on and try not to dwell on the past,” Lincecum said. “I’ve had some success in the last four years and a lot of not. I’m trying to let that go and move on to wherever I’m at right now.”