SAN FRANCISCO -- What does Tim Lincecum do for an encore?
He'll have to overachieve to exceed last season's accomplishments. As all Giants fans know, Lincecum won the National League Cy Young Award, electrifying the baseball world with his charismatic combination of style (a big leaguer resembling a member of a teenage garage band) and substance (a 5-foot-11, 170-pound pixie throwing with the force of a behemoth).
No less an expert than Randy Johnson, the 295-game winner who joined the Giants in the offseason as a free agent, believes that Lincecum can thrive again.
"It could be very exciting this year to watch him pitch," said Johnson, himself a five-time Cy Young winner. "He could be a pitcher that only comes around once every so often. What I mean by that is just dominating. Only time will tell. It sounds like he wants to be that type of pitcher."
History delivers mostly encouraging signs that Lincecum will return strong. His bid to do exactly that begins Tuesday when the Giants open the season at AT&T Park against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The right-hander became the fourth pitcher to win the Cy Young in his first full Major League season. Two of the previous three, Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers and Dwight Gooden of the Mets, performed capably. Valenzuela followed his Cy Young year by finishing 19-13 with a 2.87 ERA in 1982 and Gooden compiled a 17-6 record with a 2.84 ERA in 1986. Lincecum will try to avoid the pitfalls endured by Bret Saberhagen of the Royals, whose Cy Young followup was a dismal 7-12, 4.15 performance in '86.
Lincecum knows that opponents will be especially motivated to face him. He welcomes the challenge.
"I'd rather be in this spot than not," he said. "It just makes the game more competitive. You get pumped up for big names and big situations."
Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who caught Valenzuela, said that Lincecum's foes actually should have begun trying to counter his skills last season.
"Word spreads very quickly when a guy's on a roll," Scioscia said. "Hitters start to make adjustments long before that year's over. When we see a pitcher face a team for the second and third time in a year, you start to see some adjustments and he's still having success, then you know that his stuff plays really well against that team."
Just as Lincecum is capable of ignoring the extra attention and pressure of being a Cy Young winner, he's adept at sidestepping the hype and hoopla of Opening Day. He recently said, "It's great that it's Opening Day. It's definitely an honor. When it was announced, obviously, that's cool, you get to be the Opening Day starter. Everyone wants to hear that."
Yet in the next breath, Lincecum added, "I'm going to take it like another game. ... I'm just trying to get ready for that day as opposed to what it holds for me."
Lincecum didn't deny that pitching before an adoring AT&T Park sellout crowd will be special.
"You feel the energy from the crowd sometimes," he said. "Our fans are awesome out there. They're out there day-in and day-out. Just to pitch in front of them is awesome because you do feel like there is a slight advantage when you're at home. It's your yard."
SF: Tim Lincecum (18-5, 2.62 ERA in 2008)
Just once more, it's worth reviewing how singular Lincecum's 2008 season was. His Major League-leading total of 265 strikeouts ranked ninth in franchise history and set a San Francisco-era record. It was the sixth-highest strikeout total by a 24-year-old in history and the most since Denny McLain had 280 in 1968, the year he finished 31-6. Lincecum's 10.51 strikeouts per nine innings were second among 24-year-olds only to Kerry Wood's 11.2 in 2001 with the Cubs. Since 1900, only three other second-year pitchers had as many strikeouts as Lincecum: Vida Blue of the A's (301 in 1971), Frank Tanana of the Angels (269 in 1975) and Dwight Gooden of the Mets (268 in 1985). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Lincecum was the fourth pitcher ever to post a record 13 games above .500 for a team that finished 13 games or more below .500. That feat had been achieved most recently by Steve Carlton (27-10) of the 1972 Phillies (59-97). Lincecum was almost virtually guaranteed success when the Giants scored three runs or more for him. He was 13-1 with a 2.87 ERA in those instances. Opponents hit .167 off him with runners in scoring position, lowest in the National League. However, Lincecum's 5.25 ERA in four career starts against Milwaukee is his highest against any team that has faced him more than once. But he might be helped by pitching at home, where he's 11-6 with a 3.49 ERA lifetime. The next fielding error Lincecum commits will be his first. He has remained error-free through 58 lifetime appearances.
MIL: RHP Jeff Suppan (10-10, 4.96 ERA)
The 34-year-old Suppan has been here before. He started three consecutive season openers for the Royals from 2000-2002 but is 0-1 in those games, allowing 20 hits including nine home runs in 16 innings. His most recent Brewers start was not much better. After Dave Bush pitched the Brewers to a Game 3 win in the NL Division Series to stave off elimination, Suppan, who has a reputation as a postseason stalwart, took the mound for Game 4 and surrendered a first-pitch homer to Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins that was one of three home runs off Suppan in three innings. It capped a tough finish to the season for the veteran, who went 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA in August and then 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in September. His troubles, Suppan concedes now, date back to an elbow injury in May that briefly landed him on the disabled list over the All-Star break. "I hyper-extended my elbow in May and it affected me in ways I didn't know," Suppan said. "By September my pitches were flat and I didn't have the arm speed that I needed to pitch. I did the best I could. I wasn't hurting, but everything was flat and when it did move, it was moving toward the middle. Looking back, my mechanics had changed." Suppan gets the nod here over the offseason favorite to start Opening Day, 23-year-old Yovani Gallardo. Manager Ken Macha wanted a veteran for the assignment.
Opening Day Fanfare
Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot from the Bay Area city of Danville who safely crash-landed his US Airways jet in the Hudson River on Jan. 15 and became an instant national hero, will throw the ceremonial first pitch. "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks, starring as Teen Angel in the national tour of "Grease" currently performing in San Francisco, will sing the national anthem.
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San Francisco has lost three consecutive season openers since outlasting the Dodgers, 4-2, to christen the 2005 season. ... The Giants will have five homegrown players in their anticipated starting lineup: Lincecum, first baseman Travis Ishikawa, second baseman Emmanuel Burriss, third baseman Pablo Sandoval and left fielder Fred Lewis. That's more than they've had in any opener since 1995, when they also started five products of their farm system: second baseman Robby Thompson, third baseman Matt Williams, shortstop Royce Clayton, catcher Kirt Manwaring and pitcher Terry Mulholland. ... Milwaukee swept the Giants in last year's season series, winning all six games by a combined score of 49-18.
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Official game notes
KNBR 680, KLOK 1170 (Español)
Wednesday: Giants (Randy Johnson, 11-10, 3.91 ERA) vs. Brewers (Yovani Gallardo, 0-0, 1.88), 7:15 p.m. PT
Thursday: Giants (Matt Cain, 8-14, 3.76 ERA) vs. Brewers (Manny Parra, 10-8, 4.39), 4:05 p.m. PT
Friday: Giants (Barry Zito, 10-17, 5.15 ERA) at Padres (Shawn Hill, 1-5, 5.83), 7:05 p.m. PT