The start to Tim Lincecum's outing Saturday signaled that he was in for a rough one: for the first time in his career, he started out a game by walking the first two hitters.
Not even during his abysmal August last year did he start so erratically.
But it wasn't his overly-amped up beginning that did in Timmy, who seemed to revert to his Nationally Televised Game nervousness that he had vanquished during the Giants' World Series run. He actually got through the rough first inning, thanks to a thwarted stolen base attempt and a double play ground ball.
It was his inability to put away hitters who should have been easily disposed of; and his hittable offerings on 0-and-2 counts, twice giving up hits with that advantage. Yes, he was wild outside of the strike zone, walking a career high six. But, just as problematically, he was wild inside the strike zone.
And it happened while he had some of his best stuff going. He had a blistering fastball that touched 96 MPH, and hovered between 93 and 94 for much of the game. And he wasn't without his signature devastating split finger fastball/changeup, alongside an effective slider.
But too often, his pitch choice was puzzling -- perhaps a reflection on his batterymate, Eli Whiteside, filling in for Buster Posey, who was taking a much-needed day off. Whether he was giving way too much credit to the Braves or was simply off, the results were desultory: five runs, six hits and six walks in 6 1/3 innings -- to a team hitting .228 and with the N.L.'s worst on base percentage, .290, when they entered this series (It's still the worst, though it's increased to .296 with nine walks through the first two games of the series).
Lincecum's troubles began in the top of the third when he gave up a one-out single to No. 8 hitter, Nate McLouth (a .243 hitter coming in). It came on a 1-2 fastball over the plate. Strange that he didn't go after him with his split finger, or at least something that wasn't so hittable.
Lincecum was all over the place in walking his counterpart, Tim Hudson, who was only trying to bunt McLouth over. That walk, more than anything else Saturday, showed that Lincecum's delivery -- a complex calibration of mechanical whirrings that needs to go just right -- wasn't quite locked in.
That set up Martin Prado's RBI single on a payoff pitch. He shut off further damage by freezing Jason Heyward on a 95 MPH on the corner and eliciting a weak grounder by rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, but it was a frustrating run to allow.
In the fifth, Lincecum again let the bottom of the order set up another run. With one out, he walked McLouth on five pitches. Hudson sacrificed the center fielder over for the second out and Lincecum quickly got ahead of Prado, 0-and-2, on a curve for a called strike and a split finger that was chopped foul.
But for reasons that none of our fine Bay Area beat reporters got into in their game write-ups, he chose to go with another two-strike fastball, and Prado drove it through the hole for an RBI single and a 2-1 lead.
Eric Karros, the big-haired color man for Fox, said: "I'm a little surprised he didn't go at him with an off-speed pitch." And, later, Karros added: "he just hasn't been his pinpoint self."
Still, Lincecum showed signs of brilliance throughout. In the second, he retired the side in order, striking out Dan Uggla on a beautiful split finger changeup and Eric Hinske on a 2-2 95 MPH fastball down the middle, catching him guessing wrong. In the sixth, he retired the side in order, striking out Brian McCann on a fastball up and away, got Uggla to ground softly to shortstop (after touching 96 MPH), and striking out Hinske on a 2-ball-2-strike split, his sixth and final strikeout.
In the seventh, however, he made another 0-2 mistake. He got ahead of Alex Gonzalez (hitting .220) on a fastball called and a fastball fouled. Then he left a soft split finger up and middle-in, hanging lazily in Gonzalez' limited hitting zone for a leadoff double.
After making that mistake twice all season, Lincecum gave up two hits on 0-and-2 in a span of four innings. Clearly not his day.
But he compounded Gonzalez' hit by walking McLouth -- again. On four pitches. To set up Hudson for a crucial sacrifice that would lead to two gigantic insurance runs, especially given the Giants' currently impotent offense.
Still, with runners on second and third, Lincecum got a break -- at least it seemed so -- when Gonzalez broke for the plate on a grounder to second baseman Freddie Sanchez, who was playing in. A good throw would have nailed him for a second out. But it shorthopped Whiteside, who made a sweeping tag without the ball. Had he simply picked the ball up, he could have had the out because Gonzalez had slid past the plate without touching it.
Lincecum's day was over one batter later, when he walked Heyward to load the bases, setting up McCann's two-run single off of lefty Javier Lopez, to effectively put the game away.
A concern: Lincecum's strike-to-ball ratio has diminished in every game this year: 63.8 percent strikes in his first game, 60.9 percent in his second, 57.1 percent in his third, and 56.3 percent in his fourth game.
He's never been a real high strike-to-ball ratio guy -- he goes deep in counts in his attempt at deception.
Still, in contrast, his three top performances during the post-season last year, he threw 63 percent strikes in his 14-strikeout gem against the Braves; 67 percent against the Rangers in the World Series clincher and 70 percent against the Phillies in a 4-2 loss (in which he gave up two earned runs in seven innings but was tagged with the loss).