- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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In assessing the differences between the starters in Saturday's Game 1 of the NLCS, it might be prudent to start with something basic. Such as a question. Such as this question: Could you ever imagine Roy Halladay, the Phillies' laugh-a-decade block of granite, peppering a live interview with an F-bomb?
So then: Would it be safe to assume you can't imagine him peppering two live interviews and an in-game dugout mike with F-bombs?
All in a little more than a week?
Because that's the latest chapter in the burgeoning legend of Tim Lincecum, who has decided to put a few expletive-laden exclamation points on his second-half resurgence. His first F-bomb came live on television -- and was broadcast live in the stadium -- after the Giants beat the Padres on the last day of the season. His second was maybe more forgivable, as it was picked up by a live TBS mike in the dugout during Game 3 of the division series against Atlanta. (For the record: "F--- yeah! Shut up!") And his third was a double-barreled bomb on Giants radio in the postgame celebration after the Giants' clinching win over the Braves.
This seems to be part of a harder-edged Lincecum, whose August struggles were nearly enough to send Bay Area talk-show callers into a frenzy of pitching-mechanics analysis and dime-store psychology. He's finished. He's lazy. His hair is too long. His dad is too controlling.
No theory was too stupid.
Lincecum tweaked his slider grip, altered his between-starts routine (look for increased long-tossing to be the trend in the next year or two) and dominated down the stretch. His Game 1 performance against the Braves was as close as anybody is likely to get to upstaging Halladay's NLDS Game 1 no-hitter against the Reds. Unless, of course, you talk to statistician Bill James, who ran Lincecum's two-hit, 14-strikeout complete game through the saber grinder and discovered that Lincecum's performance was actually more dominant than Halladay's no-hitter.
If you watched both games, it's not out of the question that Lincecum was better. Given the randomness of balls put into play -- the difference between a two-hopper to third and a two-hopper through the hole is completely out of the pitcher's control -- it's easy to see how James reached his conclusion. The result derived from balls put into play makes negligible the difference between two hits and zero hits when assessing dominance. (The myth-making power of a postseason no-hitter, of course, is Halladay's to keep.) Lincecum forced 31 Braves swings-and-misses (the most of any pitcher in an MLB game this year) in nine innings. He induced nine -- yes, nine -- swinging strikes in striking out the side in the second inning. The Braves swung and missed more than 56 percent of the time, which -- as James will tell you -- approaches Bugs Bunny territory.
(Then there's Cliff Lee. What an amazing case study in body language this guy is. He seems almost weightless out there. He reminds me of the days spent at the park by my house when I was a kid, when we always wanted to play another inning after the streetlights went on. We went into double speed, pitching and running and yelling at everybody to hurry up.
Lee pitches as if the streetlights just came on and he's got to finish before his mom is forced to walk over to the park and get really ticked. It's like this: If he could figure out a way to throw the next pitch before the last one, he'd do it. The Rays tried to mess with his rhythm, backing out and calling time a millisecond before it was too late. Lee just got back on the rubber and threw one even quicker. If you watched Willy Aybar's pinch-hit at-bat in Game 5, you know. With two strikes, Aybar called time extremely late, only to get back in the box as Lee was halfway through his motion. Aybar was heading for the dugout before strike three hit Bengie Molina's mitt.)
What to make of Lincecum's swearing? It would have been a scandal 30 years ago -- imagine Dock Ellis F-bombing Curt Gowdy -- but with Lincecum, it seems weirdly OK. It's only logical to draw the conclusion that he's doing it on purpose, perhaps as a nod to his loyal fans, a ragtag bunch of wig wearers who favor "Let Timmy Smoke" T-shirts and skater shoes. They're not the typical baseball fan base, and they probably view Halladay as a functionary of an authoritarian regime, an FBI agent in metal spikes. The Lincecum demographic might not be spending evenings with Ken Burns, and none of his fans look anything like Doris Kearns Goodwin, but they're all over AT&T Park on nights he pitches, and they love their guy.
They might cause the folks in the MVP seats -- the baseball-as-pastoral-game-with-waiters crowd -- to check their wallets every seven steps as they're leaving the stadium. But there's no question the Lincecum demographic is good for the game.
Lincecum-Halladay is one of those contrast-in-styles matchups that narrow the focus of a game down to the 18-foot dirt circle in the middle of the diamond. The 5-foot-10 (maybe) Lincecum against the 6-6 Halladay, who is a sculptor's idea of a big league pitcher. In his first postseason performance, Halladay threw a no-hitter, and if he was surprised, he hid it well. His spectrum of emotions range from stoic to sober. He threw the second no-hitter in postseason history, the first since 1956, and you were left thinking he knew he'd do it all along. It was as though he would have been surprised if he didn't throw a no-hitter. He's a remarkable craftsman, the default answer to every grumpy cynic who claims these guys all make too much money to care anymore.
Saturday can't come soon enough. If the series breaks right and the proper amount of panic sets in on both sides, we could see Lincecum-Halladay in Games 1, 4 and 7.
Sounds good from here. Let's play three.