ST. LOUIS -- On the surface, it all looked the same. The thin strands of black hair falling to the shoulders. The skinny, diminutive frame. The black 55 on the back of the gray San Francisco jersey. The name LINCECUM stitched just above the number.
It looked like the same man who two years ago, in his last postseason start, scattered three hits and two walks over eight innings to carry the San Francisco Giants to their first World Series title in 56 years. The same man who won back-to-back Cy Young Awards, who led the National League in strikeouts for three straight seasons.
But then Tim Lincecum started to pitch here on Thursday night. And in 10 throws, that image of the dominating, untouchable flamethrower vanished. In its place was a baby-faced young man who looked more like a No. 5 starter than a Cy Young winner. In 10 pitches, a run had already scored, baserunners stood at first and second and pitching coach Dave Righetti was already visiting the mound.
"He was just giving me a second to breathe," Linceceum would say later.
But superstars, of course, don't need such things. Especially not less than three minutes into their performance.
Lincecum retired the next two batters but allowed the game's second run to score on Allen Craig's sacrifice fly. Before the Giants' cleanup hitter would ever step into the batter's box, San Francisco trailed 2-0 in a game it would eventually lose, 8-3.
And Lincecum and the Giants' bullpen were the main reasons why. To his credit, Lincecum battled in his 4 2/3 innings, keeping the Cardinals from blowing the game open. But this is the standard for a Triple-A call-up, not a 28-year-old $20 million-per-year phenom.
For the Giants, the results couldn't have been shocking. They've watched Lincecum struggle all season long, leading the league in walks and runs allowed while posting a 5.18 ERA, the highest for any pitcher with 30 starts. That was the reason he had been banished to the bullpen to start the postseason, a role in which he had flourished, giving up only one run in 8 1/3 innings of relief.
But when handed the ball to start Game 4 Thursday, he looked like the erratic pitcher who had confounded his team all season long. With the loss, the Giants now trail St. Louis 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
"I'm upset with myself for the game today," he said afterward. "I don't want to go out there and put our bullpen in the situation to have to use them the way we have been using them. That's the frustrating part. They're up 2-0 in that first inning, you put your team in a hole and we're pretty much scratching back from there, hoping things turn around."
They never did. Lincecum did retire eight in a row at one point, but he couldn't get through the fifth inning. With two outs and Matt Holliday at second, he was 0-and-2 on Yadier Molina but failed to put the Cardinals catcher away. In the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Molina hit a groundball up the middle, scoring Holliday to give St. Louis a 4-1 lead.
"That was a big hit for them," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said.
The Giants' bullpen didn't fare much better after Lincecum left, giving up an additional four runs and six hits in 3 1/3 innings of work. In the end, Righetti and Bochy would wear out the grass between the visiting dugout and the pitcher's mound, walking to the hill seven times in eight innings.
What a difference two years can make. In 2010, Cain, Lincecum and rookie Madison Bumgarner helped carry the Giants to the World Series. Now Lincecum appears lost, Bumgarner will be replaced by Barry Zito in Game 5 on Friday and Cain can only hope his team can string together back-to-back wins so he gets a chance to take the ball in a potential Game 7 in San Francisco on Monday.
That was the spin Thursday, of course, that the Giants have done the unthinkable already this postseason -- crawling out of a 0-2 hole in the division series to beat Cincinnati three straight on the road to reach the NLCS. At every locker Thursday night, there was another Giant spinning the fact that it wasn't time to panic quite yet.
"That's our attitude," shortstop Brandon Crawford said. "We did it before and we believe we can do it again."
But to accomplish the ultimate goal of winning the World Series, the Giants need the Lincecum from 2010, not 2012. And right now, that seems about as likely as Busch Stadium selling Miller Lite.
After Thursday's struggles, Lincecum answered all the questions. He admitted he was frustrated. Disappointed. And he didn't have his best control. He also confessed how challenging the 2012 season has been for him.
"I haven't shown flashes of what I can do or what I think I should be doing," he said. "That's the frustrating part -- I've always been able to transition on the run and not necessarily worry about that. For me not to be able to make that adjustment on the run is hard."
In the opposite end of the Giants' locker room, Jeremy Affeldt, an 11-year major league veteran reliever, looked on. When Lincecum came into the league in 2007, Affeldt admitted he had never seen anything or anyone like him. He hypothesized that Lincecum's problems are likely part mechanical, part rhythm and part bad luck. Whatever the case, he insisted that facing true adversity for the first time would only make Lincecum stronger down the road.
"This is a game that will create respect real fast if you don't have it," Affeldt said. "I'm not saying Timmy doesn't have it. He has a lot of respect for the game. But this is why you have that respect for the game. There are no guarantees.
"This was just one of those years for him you hope we can get to the World Series and he can put another one up for us, a good one. And if not, when it's all over he'll sit back, take a big breath, look at what he did wrong and say, 'I've got to fix it.' He has the talent to fix it. He has the mentality to fix it. So I don't have any doubt he will fix it."
The Giants can only hope.