- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- He's won a Cy Young, started an All-Star Game and appeared on his very own cover of Sports Illustrated. But on Monday, it was time for Tim Lincecum to do something REALLY important.
Such as: see what he could do to save the San Francisco Giants' entire season.
He couldn't quite do that single-handedly, of course. But somehow, it felt that way.
The ace hadn't pitched in 11 days, thanks to back spasms that would act up on you, too, if you had to carry a whole franchise on your favorite vertebrae. And in that week and a half, the Giants had skidded from a game behind Colorado in the NL wild-card race to a precarious 4½ back, with just 19 games left to play.
But on Monday night, the Rockies were in town. And the ace was back. And when he was through doing his inimitable, unhittable, 11-strikeout, just-one-stinking-run-on-the-board thing, the Giants were exactly where they needed to be on the night Tim Lincecum returned:
"You couldn't ask for a better guy to be on the hill for Game 1, in probably the biggest series of our season," said Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand after the 9-1 blowout that sliced the wild-card gap to 3½ games. "A game like that, it sets the tone -- definitely."
Tone or no tone, the Giants are still clinging to the edge of this race with about one-and-a-half fingernails. But now, after taking the opener of this must-sweep series, they have Barry Zito and Matt Cain lined up to pitch the next two games. And by a remarkable noncoincidence, Lincecum, Zito and Cain are the same three pitchers the Giants trotted out there a couple of weeks ago, when they swept Colorado in this same park in their previous Biggest Series of the Season.
I think everybody has got the ability, especially at this level, to do special things. That's why we're here. It's just a matter of how often we do them or being able to take advantage of the times that we can do that. So I wouldn't say I'm any more special than anyone else on this team.
”-- Tim Lincecum
But it all starts with Lincecum -- this series, this staff, this franchise. And, on one of the most important evenings of his career, he was everything an ace is supposed to be.
"He's unbelievable," said his catcher, Bengie Molina. "He's a very special guy. His motion. His pitches. He can throw any pitch for a strike on any count. And a guy who can do that is very dangerous, especially when he throws as hard as this guy does.
"He's a very special kid, man. I hope he knows how special he can be for a long time."
So howwww special is he? How do you measure that, anyway? Well, we'll start with this: For sheer unhittability, he's as tough as it gets.
Since his debut in May 2007, Lincecum has piled up more strikeouts (659) and more double-figure strikeout games (19) than any pitcher in baseball. He's held opposing hitters to the lowest batting average (.217). And he's been the toughest to hit a homer against (allowing just 32 home runs in 580 2/3 innings).
But most important of all, to the offensively challenged franchise that employs him, this guy wins. And wins. And wins some more -- even though Monday was only the second time in his past 45 starts that the Giants have scored as many as nine runs in a game he started.
Just twice in his career -- now 86 starts old -- has Lincecum taken a loss in back-to-back starts. And he's now 39-15 lifetime -- the second-highest winning percentage (.722) of any active pitcher through the first 54 starts of his career. Only Tim Hudson (41-13) was better.
"There's an energy when he pitches," said Molina, "I think that's just because of the way he's done it, the way he's pitched. So the way everybody's feeling right now, that's the way it feels in every stadium he goes to. It's just because of what he does, and what he is. He's not a very big guy, either, you know. And everybody relates to that. It's almost like, 'If he can do it, we can do it.' So I think what he's done is amazing."
But if Tim Lincecum amazes himself, he isn't letting on. It's one thing for Bengie Molina -- and the rest of the continent -- to call him "special." But that's not a word Lincecum feels comfortable applying to himself.
"I think everybody has got the ability, especially at this level, to do special things," he said. "That's why we're here. It's just a matter of how often we do them or being able to take advantage of the times that we can do that. So I wouldn't say I'm any more special than anyone else on this team."
But after the way he'd pitched on this night, you'd have a tough time convincing the residents of the beautiful Bay Area that anyone in this uniform is more special than Tim Lincecum.
For a week and a half, his back was THE topic of conversation around this team.
"I was a little nervous," said his manager, Bruce Bochy. "I'm not going to lie. I was anxious to see him out there."
But once Lincecum made it to that mound, you didn't need to call in a panel of orthopedists to know this man was fine.
His first pitch of the night was a 94-mile-an-hour inferno for a strike. His second was a cliff-diving curveball that had Rockies leadoff man Eric Young Jr. spinning like a carousel.
"I knew that was going to the biggest concern with his back, whether he was going to be able to snap off that curveball," Young would say later. "But once I saw that one snapping in the dirt, I was like, 'OKAAAAY.' "
Well, it didn't get any easier for the Rockies from there. Only three of the first 24 hitters Lincecum faced even got the ball past the infield. And the ace was in total command.
"That was fun," Lincecum would say afterward. "That was really fun, coming out and winning a game like that at the start of a series like this."
San Francisco Giants
Lincecum (14-5) has now faced the Rockies twice in his home ballpark over the past 2½ weeks. He's 2-0 with a 0.67 ERA and nearly twice as many whiffs (19) as hits allowed (10) in 15 spectacular innings in those two starts.
So, not to suggest he's kind of a difference-maker, but the Rockies are hitting .192 off him. And against all other Giants pitchers this year, they're hitting 74 points higher (.266).
"Just the way he competes," said Bochy, "the energy that he brings in the dugout and on the mound, and just the success we've had when he's on the mound, you add all those up and it means a lot to have him out there, against a team that we need to catch."
Other than Todd Helton (who was 9-for-17 lifetime against him), the rest of the Rockies' lineup came into this game hitting .211 against Lincecum, with 35 strikeouts and only 19 hits in 90 at-bats. And you could see why.
Seven of his first 11 outs came on strikeouts. And nine of his first 14. And 10 of his first 18.
When the Rockies threatened in the first, he blew away Carlos Gonzalez on three straight four-seam rocketballs.
When they put two more runners on in the third, Lincecum chewed up Seth Smith on three straight carnivorous curveballs.
With two on in the sixth, he fell behind Ian Stewart, 2-0, then went fastball-hook-change-see-ya-later.
"When I faced him for the first time, back in '07, he was just fastball-curve," said Rowand. "He didn't have that change back then. It wasn't till last year than he developed that change, and that's a devastator. When he's got all three of those pitches going, like he did [Monday], he's very, very, very, very, very difficult to hit. That's five 'verys.' I think that might be a record."
So you need any more proof that Tim Lincecum is special? That ought to do it. He just set an all-time franchise record for inspiring the most "verys" in one sentence. And he's only 25 years old. But if that's the definition of special, the ace himself wasn't buying it.
And at his feet, by the way, lay his dog, Cy, also clearly not buying it. But it was actually that dog, said Tim Lincecum, who was special.
"Absolutely," he laughed. "Plus, he's better-looking than me."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Tim Lincecum returned after missing two starts with back spasms and offered a special performance on one of the biggest nights of his career.