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Once dominant starters, Zito and Lincecum at career crossroads

Fans expect them to be well-oiled, turbine-thumping, BMW-reliable machines. Never breaking down, never wavering in performance, never changing.

After all, their compensation for one summer of work exponentially exceeds what most of the paying customers earn in a lifetime. In return, baseball superstars are expected to perform with superhuman consistency, undeterred by distraction on or off the field of play.

Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito pitched in consecutive games for the San Francisco Giants against the Toronto Blue Jays last week, two Cy Young Award winners typecast as flaky surfer dudes at the outset of their playing careers, their images frozen in time as California hippies two generations removed.

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Zito, the long-haired, guitar-playing, surfboarding lefty dominated baseball for a while, relying on a 12-to-6 curveball that started at a hitter's waist and dropped devastatingly to his ankles at the last instant.

Lincecum, the shaggy-haired poet to whom the stanzas came all too easily on the mound, won back-to-back Cy Youngs with a nasty fastball that belied his slight build, and a befuddling changeup that moved late and bit hard.

Both have a pair of World Series rings in San Francisco. Both have endured the struggle to be what they once were. Both may be free agents at season's end. Both got haircuts.

It's hard to fathom Zito, 35, is in his 14th season, the first seven spent with Oakland, where he won 102 games, never had a losing season, and compiled an earned-run average under 4.00 each season but one. The American League Cy Young Award winner in 2002, Zito signed a then-stunning seven-year, $126-million (U.S.) deal to cross the bay into the National League in 2007. Now, in the final year of that contract, with a club option for one more, he's put together only one winning record for the Giants (2012).

"Ali lost his legs, went to the ropes, took a beating," said Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, using Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope victory against George Foreman as metaphor. (In a 1974 fight, promoted as the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali absorbed relentless punches while leaning against the boxing ring's ropes until Foreman became too fatigued to resist Ali's counterattack.)

Righetti, who spent the first four years of his 16-year career as a starter before becoming an effective reliever for the New York Yankees and Giants, is reluctant to discuss his pitchers directly. Instead, he talks around the edges, much like Zito frustrated Giants fans for years by nibbling at the plate rather than working it aggressively.

He said slumps are complicated by the public criticism, and the challenge is to "reel it in, latch on to the positives."

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During the playoffs last year, Zito openly discussed the personal impact of being booed at the stadium, gutted on the radio waves, skewered in social media, targeted because his results on the field weren't living up to the fans' expectations.

"When you start hating the world, it's a heavy burden on your shoulders every day," Zito said at the time. "You can't hate the world. A lot of times, people make really nasty comments, and I can empathize with them. They're probably angry or frustrated in their own life. They don't know me, but they want to take it out on somebody. I'm able to see that now."

Zito may have felt similarly, as his mother passed away in November of 2008, and his father suffered a life-threatening heart condition in 2010. He's described himself today as a transformed person. In 2011, he became a reborn Christian and, in 2012, the committed bachelor married Amber Seyer, a former Miss Missouri Teen USA. He still surfs, still plays the guitar, and he's evolved.

Recently, he explained why he's learned to shuck questions about the Oakland years and the Giants contract. Simply: that was then.

In GQ Magazine, he said: "At some point, you're just like, 'Okay, can we talk about today, please?' But nobody wants to talk about today. And that's why I don't really do [interviews] any more, because it just becomes this whole storyline. Of course you can't get mad at that, because baseball fans … want to hear it, and I get that; but for my own kind-of-just-staying-in-the-present moment, it doesn't serve me to keep turning over."

Righetti stressed a pitcher's adjustments need to be subtle as he reaches career speed bumps – change speeds more often, focus on holding the base runners, alter the mix of pitches, things like that. "But you never want to grab at straws, because that's when it becomes dangerous."

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They need to remain true to the basic foundation of pitching that got them to the majors in the first place. Zito had to rely less on the curve that hitters began to ignore, and also to accept the cut fastball he once was able to run in on right-handed hitters was no longer as effective.

He's evolved on the field, too. Left off the postseason roster in the 2010 championship season due to performance, he pitched poorly against Cincinnati in the 2012 NLDS but rebounded to win a critical Game 5 against St. Louis in the NLCS, and dominated Detroit in a World Series victory. This year, with a 4-4 record, he's got one of the best ERAs at home, one of the worst on the road.

In the clubhouse last Wednesday, after a 4-0 loss in a duel with Jays starter R.A. Dickey, Zito spoke with composure and grace, accepting blame for a four-run inning, even though a couple of defensive plays had worked against him. When talk turned to the Biogenesis clinic doping scandal, he spoke with authority and praised baseball's diligence in trying to weed out drug cheats, saying: "Accountability is a good thing."

Zito may have settled into being a .500 pitcher accountable to providing his team about six innings each time out and a chance to win, his walks and hits per inning up a couple of degrees over his career average but still within reasonable range.

Lincecum, in contrast, has reached a point of struggling to get off the ropes in his seventh season.

Wearing hair to his shoulders, Lincecum, 28, was nicknamed "The Freak" during his dominant seasons. Now, also dubbed locally as Big Time Timmy Jim, there's open speculation in San Fran his fastball-changeup-slider repertoire may be better suited to the bullpen.

"We need him to get on track," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, before his start last Tuesday, a 2-1 San Fran win. "He's a hard one to figure out. He's healthy, and his stuff is better than last year."

Lincecum opted to sign a two-year, $40.5-million deal before the 2012 season. That strategy would have ostensibly left him as a free agent in the prime of his career. Instead, he went 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, and this year, has performed little better at 4-5 and 4.75.

At 5 foot 11 and 170 pounds, Lincecum puts a lot of stress on his arm with an energetic, highly-torqued pitching motion out of the three-quarter slot. In 2011, he weighed 30 pounds more than he did in 2012. In the off-season, he worked out with trainers in Washington to build strength and regulate fluctuating weight. It's critical to his pitches that his delivery is repeated consistently, the arm in the correct slot position – a matter of strength and endurance.

"Ali stood there, took more of a beating but won," Righetti said. "As guys get older, they go through different phases. A lot of pitchers, around that fifth or sixth year, start to settle into an area where guys are comfortable hitting against you. In the 100-, 120-starts range …you've got an opportunity to do something different."

Off the field, Lincecum moved into a $3.4-million home near the Giants spring training complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., and cut his hair into a style suited to a job interview. "Usually, I take six months between each haircut because I am lazy. It's nice to have something to upkeep, to take care of yourself."

At the team's fanfest prior to 2013 spring training, he described himself as an introspective person and admitted to being "embarrassed … not just for the jersey, but the name on the back. That's reflective of my family and their work ethic."

He said the negativity got to him, he lost confidence. And from Righetti, you get the impression a pitcher once deemed near unhittable tried to change too much, maybe because he was listening to too many advisers.

In his 2008-09 Cy Young Award seasons, he won a combined 33 games and fashioned ERAs of 2.62 and 2.48. Last Tuesday, he pitched like his old self, working quickly to hold the Jays to three hits in seven innings. In the clubhouse afterward, Lincecum looked like Paul Simon in his Graceland days, responding to questions in sound bites with a passive, slightly bored tone and blasé expression. In jeans and a light leather jacket, he would have fit seamlessly into the group at a Silicon Valley office building.

"I still have a lot of work to do," he said. "I'm not jumping up and down [in glee] right now. I'm just happy with what we did today. Tomorrow's another day of work."

He was, and is asked repeatedly about going to the bullpen. That's not where the money resides, for an impending free agent. "Like I've said, my main focus today, and this year, is to be a good starter."

It's a futile appeal to fans paying their hard-earned money, Righetti knows, but he offers perspective anyway. "They're human," the coach said. "Their bodies change. The go from being a younger guy to an older guy. It's evolution, part of life for everybody, and on top of that they're doing something extraordinarily physical with their bodies. … It's not Groundhog Day."

For the Giants though, the calendar has arrived at what may be a make-or-break month, as they face a tough schedule heading into the all-star break.

To defend the World Series championship and take a third title in four seasons, they'll need "Z" to be the reincarnated steady veteran of 2012, and Lincecum to figure out exactly what he is at this stage of his pitching career.

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