SAN FRANCISCO — Tim Lincecum emerged as the most dominant pitcher in the National League in his first two full major-league seasons. Back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards. Two All-Star selections, 526 strikeouts. All by the age of 25.
Now, the 16-game winner for the Giants gets the ball for his playoff debut: Game 1 of the division series against the wild-card Braves tonight.
Postseason veteran Derek Lowe (16-12) will start for the Braves, who reached the playoffs with an 8-7 win over the Phillies on the season's final day to extend manager Bobby Cox's farewell season.
It took big performances by Lincecum's supporting cast to get the Giants back to the playoffs after a six-year absence. They won the NL West despite enduring a career-worst five-start losing streak by their ace in August. Lincecum came through over the final month and hopes to carry that momentum into his playoff debut.
At 91-71, the Braves finished with one fewer win than the Giants. Both teams played catch up in September, with Atlanta losing the NL East to the defending NL champion Phillies.
The Braves won a majors-best 25 games in their final at-bat.
Lincecum finished his up-and-down year by winning five of his last six starts after the skid. He beat the Braves on April 11 in his second start of the year, then lost on the road Aug. 5. Atlanta catcher Brian McCann has been one of several Braves to regularly hit Lincecum, going 8-for-21 with a home run and three doubles.
"If you look at from when he got drafted, through the minors and all the way up to this point, he's always been just a power pitcher and going out there on pure ability, pure talent," Giants reliever Sergio Romo said of Lincecum. "The last couple years, he's having success as a complete pitcher, showing he does have more than unbelievable talent. He has it upstairs, he has work ethic. Everyone goes through their slumps, so for him to have the downs that he had this year and to bounce back and finish as strong as he has, you'd expect a pitcher of his caliber to be able to bounce back as well as he has. He definitely came out a bigger, better guy upstairs."
Lincecum's funk was the first prolonged rough stretch of his career. It wore on him mentally, but he finally worked out of it. Bochy has said Lincecum has emerged a better pitcher because of his struggles, which the 10th overall draft pick in 2006 never experienced in his college days at Washington or in a brief minor-league career.
Lincecum certainly has grown up this year, starting from his offseason marijuana bust back home in Washington state and through his lows of August.
"He's ready," third baseman Pablo Sandoval said. "I think he's going to win everything right now. It's the right moment."
Meanwhile, Giants manager Bruce Bochy told left-hander Barry Zito that he will not start in the division series against the Braves.
Bochy is going with Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez for Games 2 and 3, respectively. For Game 4, he will decide between Lincecum and rookie Madison Bumgarner.
"I just know I'm not pitching, I'm not starting," said Zito, who is 9-14 and largely disappointing since joining the Giants. "I'm disappointed in myself for not cracking that rotation."