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Tim Lincecum changes things up, wins MLB return with Angels

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Tim Lincecum admitted that he had trouble sleeping Friday night before his return to a Major League Baseball mound.

“I woke up a few times thinking of the game, my expectations of it and what it was going to mean to me,” he said.

The Los Angeles Angels' newest addition then arrived at O.Co Coliseum exceptionally early on Saturday morning -- at 9:15 -- in an effort to calm some of those raging nerves. But even that strategy didn’t work particularly well: Lincecum said he was flooded with even more adrenaline when confronted with an entire flock of his fans. This return was set just about 15 miles away from where his former team, the San Francisco Giants, is based, so the plentiful amount of orange and black in the stands only upped the intensity of this affair.

There was only one remedy to Lincecum’s anxiety: success back on the mound. And as soon as the two-time Cy Young award winner established himself early, it came in droves.

“After the first inning, it felt like riding a bike again,” Lincecum said. “I got into the rhythm of the game, and my nerves went away.”

The end result: Six innings of one-run ball. Lincecum scattered four hits and two walks over his strong outing, and he grew more efficient as the sun-splashed afternoon progressed, retiring 10 of the last 11 Oakland Athletics batters he faced in the Angels’ 7-1 victory.

It had been 356 days and a hip surgery since Lincecum last took a big league mound, and he looked significantly more comfortable there than he did in his previous appearance last June. Lincecum said that hip problems began to plague him in 2012 and that he felt more stable on his landing leg on Saturday than he had in almost four years.

“Now it’s a lot better,” Lincecum said. “Now it’s not as erratic.”

The biggest beneficiary of improved health on Saturday was Lincecum’s signature split-changeup, which he threw 38.8 percent of the time, his highest changeup usage rate in a start since 2009. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, the 10 putouts Lincecum recorded with the changeup were his most in a game since a no-hitter against the Padres on June 25, 2014.

“I think his splitter’s better now [than it was before],” Angels’ shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. “It’s got better action, and he’s keeping it down. It looks like it’s going to be a good pitch to hit, and they end up swinging over the top of it.”

It’s no secret that Lincecum is a different pitcher now than he was when he won back-to-back Cy Young awards with the Giants in 2008 and 2009. Lincecum readily acknowledges that faded velocity -- a fastball that hit average speeds in the mid-90s earlier this decade hovered at about 90 mph on Saturday -- has made that changeup all the more important to him.

“I’m not pumping the cheese anymore,” Lincecum said. “I’m inducing a lot more contact than I’m used to, and [that changeup] has been my go-to pitch. I didn’t get as many swings and misses as I’d like with it, but I did get some poor contact.”

And if pitching effectively to contact is Lincecum’s golden ticket to reinventing his career in a new bright red uniform, Saturday’s Angels’ debut might have provided the blueprint for success. Lincecum needed 64 pitches to get through the first three innings, but he escaped a bases-loaded jam with that changeup to enter cruise control. It took Lincecum only 10 pitches in the fourth inning and seven in the fifth to cut down the A’s, and he was well on his way to his first big league victory in just over a year.

It was exactly what the injury-plagued Angels needed from their starter. Now, they’ll ask for more of the same every five days.

“He was as cool as a cucumber there today,” Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia said. “I think you have to have some kind of adrenaline or butterflies getting back to pitching in a major league game, but he hid it well. We need production, and we need guys to come out and do what Tim did this afternoon.”

So, with the excitement and nostalgia associated with a first-time start and return to the Bay Area behind Lincecum, the time has come to re-enter the baseball routine.

“I’m trying to scratch what’s happened the last few years and move on,” Lincecum said. “I’m trying to not dwell in the past, trying to let the last four years go and be where I’m at right now.

"There’s a lot I can improve on, but I’m happy with the start.”