SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants' starting pitchers no longer look lost, but they'll need a few more encouraging turns of the rotation to prove they're on the right path.
Following a 10-game stretch in which they recorded just two quality starts (three earned runs or fewer allowed in at least six innings), the Giants reeled off four such starts in five games, including three in a row in victories over the Braves last weekend.
San Francisco's starters still rank only 12th in the National League in ERA, at 4.25. Experts agree, however, that Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong have thrived long enough in their careers to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Time, these observers maintain, will cure any ills that remain.
"These guys have track records," said former All-Star closer Mitch Williams, now an MLB Network analyst.
For instance, after a winless April in which he recorded a 6.49 ERA in six outings, Cain won his first two May starts, yielding three runs over 15 1/3 innings. That's a 1.76 ERA.
"I don't have any doubt that he's going to get back to being Matt Cain," Williams said. "The guy just knows how to pitch. And you don't forget how to pitch."
D-backs manager Kirk Gibson spoke highly of Cain even after watching the right-hander surrender three home runs in an inning on April 29.
"He's probably overthinking things a little bit," Gibson said. "He's as great of a pitcher as he's been. It's no different [than] a hitter trying to figure something out. A pitcher struggles a little bit; you start to try and figure things out. It's probably not anything big. He just hasn't had the results, and he's probably a little frustrated. I still respect him a lot, the way he throws the ball."
Left-handers Zito (3-1, 2.75 ERA) and Bumgarner (4-1, 2.18 ERA) have remained mostly issue-free, but Lincecum (3-2, 4.07 ERA) hasn't achieved true consistency and Vogelsong (1-3, 7.78 ERA) has one quality start in seven appearances.
"The question marks are Vogelsong and Lincecum," Williams said.
Lincecum also could be the exclamation point that punctuates San Francisco's season, said Mark Mulder, an analyst for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight." The right-hander gives the Giants' rotation depth if he excels -- but he's a liability if he struggles.
"To me, he's huge for that rotation," said Mulder, a two-time All-Star starting pitcher. "He's kind of that guy who can make this season really special or can possibly really hurt them if he doesn't pitch well. He's a big key to their success throughout this season."
As Lincecum himself has repeated, fastball command remains essential for him. Part of the challenge facing him is learning to throw his fastball to spots with his diminished velocity. He currently reaches around 92 or 93 mph. When he was winning his NL Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009, his fastball routinely traveled at 95 mph.
"Lincecum has to pitch at 90 miles an hour and get ahead on the count," Williams said, raising another subject: control. Lincecum's averaging 4.25 walks per nine innings, a dangerously high number.
"He's getting up there around my area," joked Williams, the "Wild Thing," whose lowest full-season average for walks per nine innings was 5.7.
Lincecum looked impressive on Sunday while blanking Atlanta on two hits through seven innings, but a pattern has emerged when he has struggled.
"You'd start to see teams be more and more patient against him, because they're betting on the fact he's not going to throw enough strikes," Mulder said.
Vogelsong said after his most recent start, last Thursday, when he allowed six runs in 4 1/3 innings against Atlanta, that he "felt really close" to regaining his effectiveness. Mulder remarked that when a veteran pitcher says this, he's usually sincere.
"They've had spurts where they can say, 'That's it. There it is,'" Mulder said.
In fact, Vogelsong has pitched four capable innings in each of his last two starts before stalling in the fifth.
"The game is so mental that sometimes when a pitcher says, 'It's close,' he means, 'I'm mentally getting close.' Not even necessarily stuff-wise," Mulder said. "That's not a bad thing. It just means you have to be able to keep that focus for nine innings as opposed to five or six."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com.