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CINCINNATI

Tim Lincecum trotted in from the bullpen in the bottom of the fourth. It was still a game then, the Giants up 3-2 although they would win 8-3. This was no cameo appearance, no throwaway role, not garbage time.

When Lincecum reached the mound, he kicked the rubber and dug his groove in the red dirt. He threw his practice pitches to Hector Sanchez, always working from the stretch, his dark hair flying out behind his cap. Just when you thought he'd pitch, he turned his back to the batter — Ryan Ludwick — and kneeled down and tied his shoes. He was wearing baseball cleats, but you imagined him in Keds and you imagined him 13 years old. From certain angles, he looks 13.

Lincecum struck out Ludwick swinging, just toyed with Ludwick who had hit a home run earlier. He pitched 4? innings and gave up two hits and one run and he won the game.

Imagine that. Tim Lincecum got the win in a game that was not his. It was Barry Zito's game, and so much had been made of Zito, how he had proved himself, how he was throwing better than Lincecum, how he had earned this start. The Giants gave Zito the game, but he couldn't keep it. He walked batters and was afraid of the big hitters, and Bruce Bochy mercifully dismissed before he had pitched three innings.

On the big stage in a crisis game, Zito fell off the stage. Lincecum owned the stage. He is not the pitcher he was. When he was The Freak, he blew batters away, smoke trailing his fastball as it slammed into the catcher's mitt. Now, he is a cutie. He rarely throws faster than 90 and he throws off-speed stuff that bounces in the dirt. He fools batters and when he is good, he is an artist. On Wednesday he was very good.

Jeremy Affeldt watched Lincecum from the bullpen and described what Lincecum does when he is on: "He's aggressive and lets everything fly. He doesn't push anything. He doesn't aim anything. He lets it all go. He has a fastball that goes through the catcher. It's not just getting there — it goes through the catcher and it's jumping, and hitters don't like to see that when a ball jumps at them. With him it's not probably a normal delivery. It's an interesting delivery and when he has good tempo, there's going to be some really good stuff coming out of there."

On Wednesday, there was some really good stuff coming out of there.

With Lincecum there are questions, more questions than answers. Why is he good sometimes and bad sometimes? Why did he pitch well in Game 4 after the team deleted him from the starting rotation? Will he ever again be a superior pitcher? Was Game 4 his rebirth or a mere footnote in Giants' history?

If you know the answers, drop me a line.

I him asked why he pitched well in Game 4.

"Right now, I feel like the times are different," he said. "We're playing for a different reason than just the season, to get to the NLCS and further. With that motivation it helps not to think about the difference of starting and being in a bullpen situation. It's just that I've got to get my outs and do my job."

Before we perform a textual analysis on that quote, try one more: "Coming out of the bullpen and knowing your role, you don't have to pace yourself through a certain amount of innings," Lincecum said. "You're just there to get outs until they tell you you're done. To be able to go in the stretch and think about where I want to throw it as opposed to how I'm going to get it there, that's easier for me."

Those quotes are revealing. Lincecum is saying, I believe, he thinks too much. He is a better pitcher when he just throws the freaking ball. "Get the ball and then throw the ball, Tim, and leave the cerebral cortex out of it." What he did on Wednesday is what serious pitchers do, what men who contend to be staff ace do.

I asked Bochy if he would consider starting Lincecum in a playoff game, if the Giants continue on. "I think you have to," he said. Which means Lincecum redeemed himself. No, not quite. He has begun the process of redeeming himself.

There are other redemptions going on. Giants hitters have begun a similar process of redemption. Until Game 4, the bunch of them had been living under a rock, but Wednesday they hit three home runs, one of them a game-starting blast by Angel Pagan. Pablo Sandoval had three hits including a home run.

Because of Lincecum and the hitting, the Giants have earned a one-game playoff — that's what it is — one and done, do or die. They bravely forced this issue. Today it is Matt Cain against Mat Latos, a world electric with drama. It is everything you could want. Everything the Giants need.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.