LOS ANGELES -- Even after his mini-renaissance last October as a lights-out reliever, a key part of the Giants' march to a World Series title, manager Bruce Bochy said there was no question of whether Tim Lincecum would rejoin the starting rotation in 2013. It was such a foregone conclusion that the topic wasn't even broached before the Giants reconvened in Arizona this spring.
"I think," Lincecum said, "it was just more known than anything."
In that case, Lincecum has had ample time to anticipate tonight's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, his first start since last Oct. 18 in Game 4 of the NLCS. Like Lincecum's 2012 season, that outing was tumultuous. He departed in the fifth inning of an 8-3 loss, and pitched again in the playoffs only in relief.
There followed an offseason in which Lincecum revamped his workout regimen, putting in work to regain power in his delivery. Then an extra-long spring training interrupted for Lincecum by a blister on his pitching hand. He returned to post a 10.57 ERA in the Cactus League outings he did make.
And now, after watching an opening day from the dugout for the first time since 2008, Lincecum will oppose the Dodgers' Josh Beckett tonight in the series finale before the Giants head home to face the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday.
"I've been itching at the bit since my last start just to get out there and have the game matter," Lincecum said.
"I'm going in with a level head, a lot of optimism right now. Confidence is high, which is good. And yeah, just really excited. We'll see what happens."
Despite Lincecum's truncated spring -- he pitched in five games because of the blister -- Bochy said he's happy with Lincecum's arm strength and command and feels Lincecum is stretched out enough having thrown 81 pitches in his last spring start against the A's.
Lincecum said his last bullpen session was encouraging. And he reiterated that he has "embraced" the struggles he went through last season and is in a more positive frame of mind as this year begins.
Bochy said several factors likely contributed to Lincecum's struggles in 2012, when he had the highest ERA (5.18) among qualifying N.L. pitchers and set career highs in losses (15), home runs allowed (23) and walks (90). There were mechanical and confidence issues, and some of the in-season adjustments only seemed to compound the problems.
"Even with that he pitched some good games," Bochy said. "He just set the bar so high, and the expectations -- they're always going to be there. It's not easy for these guys sometimes, when they get derailed, to get back on track.
"Probably the best thing that could've happened is what happened, and that's (for him) to help us win the World Series like he did by pitching out of the bullpen and having that to think about over the winter -- that he contributed to our success when we really needed him, and hopefully carry that into this new year."
Lincecum said one thing he's carrying over from his time is a reliever is the idea of "dumbfounding yourself." That is, relief appearances come without the anticipation of starts and can be over just as quickly. "You've just got to lock into that focus, and I think I've learned a lot from that," he said.
While Matt Cain established himself last year as a staff ace and made his first opening day start Monday with full support from Lincecum, the Giants ensured Lincecum would pitch in the opening series against the Dodgers by slotting him third in the rotation. Bochy has said he didn't take timing into consideration when laying out the rotation. But Lincecum said getting a chance to start in the first series carries some weight.
"Obviously they wanted me to be a starter this year, and whether that was in the three spot or five spot I kind of just wanted to be included in that," Lincecum said. "And I don't know necessarily if I've earned that with my spring training numbers or (if it's) just my tenure here I guess you could say.
"But I think you've got to respect that and take it as a sign of respect for myself to know that I can go out there and they have that trust in me -- they have that confidence in me -- to go out there and get the job done. Especially coming off, like I said, any kind of bad starts that I had last year."
Next offseason will bring a more momentous decision. Lincecum is due to become a free agent after this season, which at least raises the possibility of the two-time Cy Young winner wearing a different uniform at this time next year. Lincecum said he hasn't given much thought to next season.
"It's really hard for me to do that," he said. "I've always been the guy to focus on the year at hand and we'll see what goes on afterward. I'd like to just keep my focal points on where we're at right now."
Tonight that's a mound at Dodger Stadium, where he gets a chance to turn the page.
-- Matt Kawahara