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Advantage Lincecum in duel of contrasts

Leach: Advantage Freak in duel of contrasts

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You wanted the best, and you got the best. Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, the National League Championship Series will show off just about the best possible pitching matchup that this postseason could offer. This year's Cy Young favorite and 2003 winner Roy Halladay will face off against two-time Cy Young honoree Tim Lincecum in a contest not only of great talent but enjoyably contrasting styles.

With all due respect to my colleague, Alden Gonzalez, Lincecum, believe it or not, is the man to beat.

Halladay is the man most likely to hoist the hardware next month. And truth be told, he's also the one more likely to be still pitching later this month when the World Series gets under way. But for one night, under the lights in Philadelphia, bet on black -- and orange.

At his best, Lincecum is simply the best there is. And right now, he's at his best. He's coming on strong following an odd midseason lull.

"We all have our ups and downs," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said after Lincecum's stunning showing in Game 1 of the Giants' National League Division Series against the Braves. "And he was searching there for a little while, but he found it. He's been on a nice roll here."

That's putting it quite mildly. Over Lincecum's last seven starts, including his NLDS gem, he's allowed nine runs in 50 2/3 innings, with 66 strikeouts and nine walks. Lincecum's coming off a single game that's just about as good as Halladay's last game, and over the past six weeks, he's been better. There's no hotter pitcher in the NL than Lincecum.

Just because he's doing things differently, doesn't mean he's not as good as he used to be. Lincecum is less of a power pitcher these days, relying on an evil changeup/breaking ball combination that makes his low-90s fastball look much harder than it actually is.

That should be an advantage. Lincecum was always tough to hit. Now that he's going about things a different way, any familiarity that Phillies hitters might have had will be less useful.

Not that these guys ever really hit him anyway. Save for Ryan Howard, the Phillies have had no luck against Lincecum. Chase Utley is 2-for-20. Shane Victorino is 4-for-21. Jimmy Rollins is 3-for-18. Howard has raked him, going 6-for-19 with five extra-base hits, but if Lincecum can keep the men in front of Howard off of the bases, he can limit the slugger's impact.

And that's one thing Lincecum has been doing well lately -- keeping runners off base. He's throwing more strikes, issuing fewer walks these days. He'll need to do that against a Philly team that loves to work deep counts. For the most part, Lincecum also keeps the ball in the park. He's allowed 51 home runs in more than 800 career big league innings.

That combination will get you a long way against the Phillies, who can certainly hit singles but are at their best when they are taking-and-raking. Keep the ball in the strike zone and in the park, and you can beat them.

Perhaps surprisingly, it also helps to be right-handed against the Phillies. They're known for the left-handed thump in the middle of their order, but they hit lefties better than right-handed pitchers this year -- another small but noteworthy edge for Lincecum, who of course is not your typical right-hander.

In short, though, it comes down to this: putting aside a lull in the middle of this year, Lincecum has been the best pitcher in the National League for three years running. He's a handful because of his stuff, his location, his delivery, all of it. He's back on form and he's feeling good. He pitched very well in his only start against the Phillies this year, and he's been a bit better on the road than even at spacious AT&T Park.

And even in a down year, well, it wasn't really a down year.

For those who may have missed it amid the sturm und drang and the crush of 'What's wrong with Timmy' stories, Lincecum once again led the National League in strikeouts. It's not like this was a bad year for the two-time Cy Young winner. It just wasn't up to his own impossibly high standards.

Down the stretch? He was brilliant, even by those standards. There's no reason to think that won't continue.

"You know, things got a little bit more crucial [in September]," Lincecum explained before his playoff start. "I went through more of a hectic period in my career. Obviously, that rough month made me want to turn things around, just do something different, and between, then changing my in-between starts routine, go harder, and a little more conditioning."

It's worked out superbly. It should continue to on Saturday night.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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