DETROIT - Near the end of the 2011 season, with two Cy Young Awards on his mantel and secure as No. 1, or at least 1A, on the San Francisco Giants starting staff, Tim Lincecum decided he was overweight.
His knees and shins had begun to feel discomfort so he gave up cheeseburgers and milkshakes and spent his offseason swimming. He went from about 187 pounds down to about 157 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame and when he arrived at spring training last February, pitching coach Dave Righetti was alarmed.
"His whole body changed, and that weight can affect your mechanics as well," Righetti said. "I don't give a damn what his weight is, but I know what too big is and I know what too little is. He showed up too little."
At his very best, during the Cy Young seasons of 2008 and 2009, Lincecum came after hitters with 98 mph heat, with movement, a paralyzing curveball and a changeup that should have been illegal. By the end of spring training this year, he was barely breaking 90 with his fastball and the early results reflected that.
By the All-Star break, Lincecum was 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA and he had regained 10 pounds. Opponents had an OPS of .807 when hitting against him and the Giants were 4-14 in his starts.
"I've never gone through anything like this in my life," Lincecum said at the time. "I've set the bar high for myself, and I know I'm not coming through. I've been wearing these (expletive) losses hard. Real hard. This game is my passion, and this is killing me. I know I'm going to come out of this eventually. I just wish I knew when."
This was a particularly unfortunate development in that Lincecum had turned down a five-year, $100 million offer from the Giants, opting for a two-year deal at $40.5 million that will allow him to hit the free agent market after the 2013 season.
"I know it sounds really selfish, but I want to think this team needs me," he said. "And I need it."
Through the rest of the regular season, the Giants kept sending him out every fifth day and Lincecum's numbers improved, but not dramatically. When it came time to set a playoff rotation, the Giants decided he was not in their top four.
If Lincecum was going to contribute, it would be out of the bullpen.
"He could have been upset about going to the bullpen, and not one second did you ever see that from him," fellow starter Ryan Vogelsong said. "He just went down there and came out firing BBs, and he's been really impressive."
Whoever that skinny imposter who has been inhabiting Lincecum's uniform was, he has left the building. His fastball still hasn't returned to crackling good health but he has been pitching with conviction in these playoffs, and especially in the World Series
"He has relished the role. That's the biggest part of it, is he accepted it and really acted like he looked forward to helping the club in that role, and that's why I think he's having success," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He didn't waver on going to the bullpen. He said, 'Yeah, I'd love to go there and help this team move forward.'"
Lincecum says the experience of San Francisco's 2010 run through the playoffs on the way to winning the World Series affected him in a profound way.
"The second we got that ring, it's like that taste for that next ring is just sitting right in your mouth the whole time," Lincecum said before stopping himself. "That sounds terrible. Let me rephrase that. It just leaves you wanting it even more, and if that means being a good teammate or being in the bullpen, I really don't care. I just want to win."
The added dimension of having a pitcher of Lincecum's stature available out of the pen has been a key feature of the Giants' playoff run. As a reliever, Lincecum has appeared in five post-season games, logged 13 innings, allowed one run on three hits and two walks, while fanning 17. He also made a spot start against the Cardinals in the NLCS, allowing four earned runs over 4.2 innings.
In the World Series, he came on in relief of Barry Zito in Game 1 and again in Game 3, picking up after Vogelsong. In a combined 4.2 innings, he has allowed one baserunner, on a walk, and struck out eight.
While he remains in the 170-pound range, Lincecum has made some delivery adjustments, simplifying his mechanics. He's also pitching from the stretch, even when there are no runners on base.
"It allows me to just think about one thing, and that's sight of the target," he said. "At times it can still get away for me and I can still think about the wrong things. But most of the times it works."
The Giants know what they have in Lincecum and it isn't a middle reliever. They are expecting him to be back in the rotation next year and dominating as he has in the past. This playoff success can only help in that regard.
"He definitely has an air about him," catcher Buster Posey said. "It's confidence. And the stuff is really, really good. The fastball has movement I haven't seen in a while. I don't know exactly why that is, but I'll take it."
So will the rest of the Giants as they attempt to wrap up their second World Series title in the last three years.