Tough Love Sparks Historic Run, Helps Giants Close In on Playoff Berth
Truth be told, he was a little jealous.
"You see how much the NFL guys get worn out by their coaches every day," Zito said. "Baseball is a different sport. We don't really get that, but when we do, I appreciate it."
Which brings us back to Aug. 28. That's the day that Giants general manager Brian Sabean, who normally keeps his distance from the players, called a meeting of his team's struggling starters and lit into them.
"He got fired up," Zito said. "He had every right to. ... We (expletive) deserved it, and I loved it."
Fast forward to the present. Roughly since that meeting, the Giants starters have been at the forefront of a team-wide, historic streak of quality pitching.
Tim Lincecum, who pitched a dominating eight innings in a critical 2-1 victory over the Rockies on Friday at Coors Field, led the way to the Giants' 18th consecutive game allowing three runs or fewer. That is the longest such streak in the major leagues since 1917.
Babe Ruth was still playing for the Red Sox in 1917, when the White Sox went 20 games in a row without allowing four runs. That was when the balls were dead and home runs were a curiosity. Putting together a streak like that today, when the strike zones are small and the hitters are big, is simply incredible. If there was a staff you thought capable of such a thing, it would be the Giants, who were all about pitching last year and most of this year. But you would not have pegged the Giants for this type of thing last month, when the club was in some sort of Bizarro World.
Giants starters were 5-13 with a 5.13 ERA in August. Lincecum, the guy who has taken home the NL Cy Young Award each of the past two seasons, was an unthinkable 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in August, prompting widespread panic among Giants fans because of lost velocity, pitch-tipping and maybe even a little mental weakness.
Was the problem in Lincecum's arm or his head?
If it was the latter, the issues were flushed out of his mind when Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Zito sat in manager Bruce Bochy's office and listened to their general manager read them the riot act. (Matt Cain, that night's pitcher, did not attend.)
"He just told us to wake up," Lincecum said. "We know what we can do and it's not about stats any more. It's not about individuals. Pick up the (expletive) guy behind you. We know what we can do. Just realize it. It was more of a wakeup call for us, to light a fire under our ass."
In September, Giants starters have a 1.88 ERA. The bullpen's ERA is 0.35 -- two earned runs in 51 innings. The pitching is the sole reason that the Giants climbed from six games back to overcome the Padres and move into first place.
They are now in the final sprint to the finish line, just eight more games to go. They came into Coors Field to face a Rockies team that was on fire a week ago, but had lost four in a row heading into this series. The Rockies desperately needed a sweep to get comfortably back into the race, and the Giants denied them that on the first day.
As is the Giants' custom, they didn't score much. Pat Burrell's seventh-inning two-run homer was the extent of their offense, which has become increasingly reliant on the long ball. Moments after Burrell gave the Giants a 2-1 lead, Lincecum took the mound for perhaps his most impressive inning of the night.
The majors' two hottest hitters this month -- Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki -- were due, followed by Todd Helton. The sellout crowd no doubt sensed that this was the chance to get something going.
Lincecum got Gonzalez on a routine grounder to second, Tulowitzki on an easy grounder to short and he struck out Helton. He followed that with a perfect eighth before giving way to closer Brian Wilson, who pitched a perfect ninth. Lincecum retired the first 15 Rockies hitters before giving up a run in the sixth, and Lincecum and Wilson retired the last 10 after Eric Young's RBI single.
Pretty simple, really. Nothing the Giants haven't been watching all month, or most of the past three years from Lincecum. While his results -- 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA in September -- have looked very 2008 or 2009, there is one added wrinkle to Lincecum that is decidedly 2010.
He now knows what it feels like to have his tail kicked, first by National League hitters and then by his general manager. The result is a new, more focused, Lincecum.
"In the first two years, he'd just grab the ball and chuck it," Wilson said. "He had great stuff, great talent and he thrived on that. Now you see him work out harder. He's a little more determined. You can see his mound presence is greater. He knows what's at stake. He's tasting victory and he wants a piece."