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 San Francisco Giants gets to take the ball for his most important start yet: Game 1 of the division series against the wild-card Atlanta Braves on Thursday night at AT&T Park.
Postseason veteran Derek Lowe (16-12) will go for the Braves, who reached the playoffs with a dramatic 8-7 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on the season's final day to extend manager Bobby Cox's farewell season.
"He's a lot different pitcher right now than he was in the first half of the season," Cox said of Lowe. "He was good in the first half. He's even better now."
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.
These teams have taken similar paths to this point, each getting through playoff-like games for most of September. That's why this series doesn't feel much different to Cox, even if he's back in the postseason for the first time in five years.
"We've been through these playoffs the last three weeks. Every game is a must-win game," Cox said Wednesday before his team worked out in San Francisco. "The Giants went through exactly the same thing."
San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy knows Cox will be prepared for anything and everything. The 69-year-old Cox is retiring after the season. He led Atlanta to 14 straight division titles before this recent four-year drought.
"I revere this guy so much with what he's done and what he's accomplished," Bochy said. "It's going to be good to see him, I will say that. I do know that you have to play your best ball to beat this team. You're not going to surprise Bobby. He's a great manager."
Neither team planned to finalize its roster until Thursday morning's deadline. 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 league champion Phillies.
The Braves won a majors-best 25 games in their final at-bat.
"That's how we got here to be honest with you," Cox said.
Lincecum finished his up-and-down year by winning five of his last six starts following the skid. He beat the Braves way back 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 against the hard-throwing righty.
There's thought some hitters have begun figuring him out.
"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. It's pretty cool."
All the numbers and matchups mean little now. The Braves are playing to extend their special year for Cox. Like Atlanta, the Giants have made it this far without a superstar like their old Barry Bonds-led teams.
"This year we made every effort to put together the best team we could and do everything we could to improve on last year's record and be contenders all through the season," said second-year San Francisco managing partner Bill Neukom. "So far so good is all you can say."
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 days at the University of Washington or in a brief minor league career.
Lincecum's losing streak began with that start at Atlanta. Cox knows that's all a thing of the past.
"What's a bad month for him?" Cox joked. "He's tough. He's as good a pitcher as you ever want to see."
Lincecum's unorthodox delivery and quirks — he doesn't ice his arm after starts — have earned him nicknames such as the Franchise and Freak along the way.
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. He'll get focused. You've got good and bad moments in the season, and you just go out and do your job."