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MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Giants know where to get started on winning path

Lincecum, Cain hold key to reclaiming control of National League West

Giants know where to get started on winning path

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- OK, so the San Francisco Giants had a rather uneventful offseason.

Maybe it is better that way. Let the rest of the National League West steal the headlines.

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Let the Giants lay low.

They know what they have to do to win, and they have shown it, winning two of the last four World Series. And they know why they have stumbled the other two times, including their 86-loss 2013 season, in which they finished 16 games back of the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

It's all about starting pitching, and while other teams can spend an offseason looking for quick fixes to what ails them, the Giants know that the answer to the questions that surrounded their 2013 season can best be answered from within.

And the signs have certainly been positive in the early days of spring.

Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, both of whom will be 29 on Opening Day and should be in their baseball primes, have taken the initial steps to give the Giants reason to believe the anchors to their rotation are ready to regain their roles among the elite big league pitchers in 2014.

Lincecum followed up five perfect innings from Cain in a Monday start against the Cubs by working into the fifth inning in the Giants' 4-3 victory against the Chicago White Sox at Scottsdale Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

"They are premier pitchers," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said. "They have pride. It's about being resilient in this game. It's what great players are good at."

Lincecum allowed just one hit in four shutout innings, then gave up three hits and was charged with two runs while retiring only one batter in the fifth. They are the only two runs he's allowed in 9 1/3 innings this spring. And if that's a good sign for the Giants in their hopes that the right-hander who won two NL Cy Young Awards in his first three full seasons can bounce back from three consecutive sub-.500 years, check out Cain.

Cain has given up one hit in eight walk-free innings, striking out nine in his two spring starts.

"When the season starts, everybody is at zero, but you want to build momentum during the spring," said Cain. "You want to have positive reinforcement."

Most of all, there is that desire to eliminate the negative thoughts of a year ago.

"If a guy goes out and says he doesn't doubt himself, he's lying," said Cain. "It is human nature. What you have to do is be able to have the confidence you can get the job done. You have to believe you are good enough to overcome [the negatives]."

Cain and Lincecum have shown they are capable of overcoming any negatives.

Lincecum was in the big leagues 11 months after San Francisco made him its first-round pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. He won NL Cy Young Awards in 2008 and '09, his first two full big league seasons, and by the end of the 2010 season, he had a 56-27 big league record.

Lincecum was selected to the NL All-Star team for the fourth time in 2011, but the trouble had begun. He is 33-43 the last three years, suffering a losing record each season.

The Giants were able to overcome Lincecum's problems in winning the World Series two years ago, but last year, there was nobody to pick up the slack. Barry Zito slipped back into oblivion. Ryan Vogelsong battled injuries. And Cain, coming off a career best 16-5 in 2012, was buried by a first-half struggle.

Add it all together and the Giants' rotation had a 4.37 ERA, 12th in the NL and also the 12th-highest ERA for a San Francisco rotation in the 14 years the team has called pitcher-friendly AT&T Park home. What had been considered the best rotation in baseball went bust.

And it started with the two anchors, Lincecum and Cain, who not only were a combined 18-24 last year, but saw the Giants go 26-36 in their combined 62 starts. That's why San Francisco got an early pass to go home, where the club watched the baseball postseason instead of being a part of it.

"You have to have a long winter, but I think it freshens them up a little bit," Bochy said.

So far, so good. Lincecum and Cain look like they are ready to regain their place atop the rotation, along with 24-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner, who was 29-20 the last two years, and has run off three consecutive 200-plus inning seasons.

Cain and Lincecum once were 200-inning certainties, but not lately. Cain saw his streak of 200-inning seasons end at six last year, and Lincecum, after putting together five 200-inning seasons in a row, hasn't gotten to that mark either of the last two years.

"Yes," Lincecum said, when asked if 200 innings is a benchmark for pitchers. "I had that streak for [four] straight years. I'd like to get myself back to there, challenge myself with that."

The Giants certainly are counting on Lincecum regaining that stature. With his return to prominence, along with Cain building off his second-half resurgence of a year ago, they feel that while they may not grab the headlines of the Dodgers, they are certainly capable of challenging in the NL West.

Hidden from public view by an 8-10 record and a 4.00 ERA was the fact that Cain compiled a 2.36 ERA in 11 second-half starts.

"I think they both learned from last year," said Bochy.

It's what the Giants are counting on this year.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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