"We see so many NL West teams over here," Lincecum said, "you try to avoid that when you're going right before the season so these guys don't get a knack for you and you don't get stupid things going through your head, either."Stupid things? In the head of the two-time Cy Young winner affectionately known as The Freak? "Are these guys on me?" Lincecum said, offering the kind of doubts that can arise out of a poor performance against a rival lineup. "You're questioning yourself sometimes in Spring Training. The first outing I had against [the Rockies] was absolutely terrible. Those things happen in spring, but it's hard to not take these things seriously. ... I'd actually get upset on bad outings just the way I would during the season." So a low-pressure start was a better way for Lincecum to have a pressure-free outing while getting his work in. He threw 91 pitches in 5 1/3 innings, yielding four runs on six hits while striking out six. He managed to yield a walk -- a challenge against notoriously free-swinging 18-year-olds -- and he didn't feel bad about showing his big league changeup to a wide-eyed lineup of young professionals. "If they get a hit off me, they're probably not feeling too bad either," Lincecum said. "My changeup and curveball aren't the problems. The fastball wasn't exactly where I wanted to be. I want balls at the knees and they're sitting at the waist. When you're trying to work ahead, that's going to really eliminate pitches to batters when they're looking for something else. Fastball location, which is something everyone's working throughout the year, I just got to get that down before the season starts." The Giants' season starts two weeks from Friday, and as it has for past three seasons, it will start with Lincecum toeing the rubber. After a trip home for three exhibition games with the A's, the Giants return to Arizona where they open the season against last year's National League West champions. "Obviously, the opponent is the Diamondbacks, and that's going to be a big game, because we have a little bit of remembrance of where we were last year and they were able to celebrate in front of us," Lincecum said, recalling the D-backs clinching the division in a 15-2 home win over the Giants on Sept. 24. "I'm sure a lot of people are itching to get back out there against them and start the battle over. Hopefully it'll be in our favor this time." The first move in the 2012 battle will belong to Arizona, which will use the occasion to run its NL West pennant up the flag pole. "I'm indifferent to it," Lincecum said of the ceremony. But that indifference will fade when his competitive fire is stoked by an energized Giants lineup taking its first swings of the season. Lincecum anchors a rotation to envy, with Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong tentatively set to follow him. If everyone stays healthy, the Giants can look to a lineup better suited to support the pitching staff as they open the season behind their ace. "[I like] the excitement that we've seen on the bases," Lincecum said. "Guys moving. It gets pitchers thinking. I know, as a pitcher out there, the last thing I want is guys stealing bases. It gets your head going and you stop thinking about the batter. When you get to see other pitchers go through what you hate, you see what it's like. "Havng a fast team, having a team that can make moves on the bases and put pressure on the pitcher is the kind of baseball that we want to play. Manufacture runs, get guys over and use our speed." But there will be plenty of time for Lincecum's competitive fire to stoke his team come Opening Day. He's got two more Cactus League starts, facing the Angels and Brewers if all stays on track. It's a schedule free of divisional rivalry, offering the 27-year-old right-hander ample opportunity to air it out and feel ready for that first "Play ball!" of the season. "We just want to see everybody doing well, that's the thing," Lincecum said. "The guys that aren't doing so hot, they're just going to pick themselves up when the season comes around. It's not one of those things where I'm worried about guys or more impressed with somebody else. We just know we have to get ready before the season starts." For Lincecum, a trip to the back-field baseball of Class A was part of that journey from roots to readiness, with a head free of "stupid things" and full of a love for the game.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.