"You're always questioning how to sustain what you're doing, or how to get better," Lincecum said late Tuesday night, savoring a 4-1 decision that pushed the Giants 1 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers in the National League West. "You're always trying to get up to a higher level.
"One thing Randy Johnson said when he got here was to never get complacent. Never get content. You're never good enough until the next day, until you put your work in and do everything you can to get better."
Lincecum has been challenged this season in unanticipated ways, mentally and emotionally. His struggles have been monumental at times, leaving him to wonder how all those exclamation marks he created across five brilliant seasons -- with back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards -- had turned to question marks.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy has been right there with Lincecum through it all, stressing how humbling baseball can be, "that you've got to keep the game in perspective."
"It's not easy for a player, especially when you've had the success he's had," Bochy said. "That's part of the problem with Timmy. The bar he set is so high, with those two Cy Youngs and everything he's done, it's not easy to go through what he has this season.
"I don't care who you are -- your confidence is going to be shaken. You're even going to get embarrassed. As long as you give it your all, you can't look back. You've got to turn the page and move on. You have no choice. If things go bad, it's how you handle it that matters. You're always going to get tested. You have to learn and get better."
This latest effort -- Lincecum recorded 17 outs and was dominant for five innings -- should hearten all those Timmy fans who have been in despair, staving off bouts of borderline depression.
He's 7-13 overall with a 5.30 ERA. There's no escaping the hard numbers. But as rough as those first three months were, Lincecum's second half is more in line with his standards. He's showing he can keep his team in position to win games, and that, with five weeks left in a playoff race, is the only relevant point.
In his past eight starts, Lincecum owns four wins and a no-decision in a Giants victory. His ERA over that stretch, covering 49 1/3 innings, is 3.10. He isn't blowing hitters away the way he did in his "Freak" days -- four strikeouts in this one -- but he's not getting smoked, either.
"Every time he goes out there -- especially in our ballpark -- the expectations are so high," Bochy said. "To go through that isn't easy. He's got a lot of pride. He takes it very hard at times, and that's added pressure."
With pitchers generally more than position players, greatness can come and go -- and come back again. There is so much to the job, so many elements and variables. This is a guy who, because of a complex delivery and uncommonly small frame, has constantly had to prove himself.
His mental toughness never has been in question by those who know him best.
"He had good focus tonight, good stuff," Bochy said. "To come off a rough start [four innings, four runs against Washington] like this is a good sign for us and for Timmy."
Lincecum kept the Dodgers, with their newly designed lineup, in check almost exclusively with his fastball and slider, rarely going to the changeup. The slider was his out pitch, and he used it when he needed it most.
His 87th and final delivery was hoisted to the warning track in right field by Matt Kemp for a sacrifice fly. Lincecum was on the tightrope, and Bochy was about to come get him.
So clean through five innings, yielding just two hits, Lincecum got himself in trouble by walking A.J. Ellis leading off the sixth. Juan Rivera singled, and when Shane Victorino followed with another single, Lincecum got the help he needed.
A strong, accurate throw from Angel Pagan in center field and tag by catcher Hector Sanchez erased Ellis trying to score from second.
Adam Kennedy's second hit of the night loaded the bases for Kemp. This was a moment of truth for Lincecum, dealing with arguably the league's best hitter, mired in an 0-for-21 slump. The big crowd rose and cheered, but when Kemp couldn't get quite enough of a soft slider, leaving it on the track in Hunter Pence's glove, Lincecum had survived.
"It got away from Timmy in the sixth there," Bochy said, "but our bullpen came in and did a great job again."
Jose Mijares put away Andre Ethier with a high heater to close the sixth, leaving it to Santiago Casilla (two perfect innings), Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez to finish. Lopez, who comes down low and can paralyze a left-handed hitter, arrived after Kemp's one-out single to end it on a double-play grounder by Ethier.
"It's big for the Giants -- especially with the hunt we're in," Lincecum said through a winning pitcher's smile. "It's not just my game -- it's everyone's game."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less