(Sports Network) -- Strong pitching has helped propel the San Francisco Giants into first place in the National League West. With Tim Lincecum appearing to get his act back together as well, the team could be even tougher to beat down the stretch.
Lincecum will attempt to continue his excellent work since the All-Star break and lead the Giants to a series sweep of the San Diego Padres when the division rivals conclude a three-game set this afternoon at Candlestick Park.
The season's first half was an absolute nightmare for Lincecum, the 2008 and 2009 NL Cy Young Award recipient and four-time All-Star who entered the break with an ugly 3-10 record and 6.42 earned average after being shelled for 14 runs and 16 hits in just 6 2/3 innings in back-to-back road losses to Washington and Pittsburgh to begin July.
He's been back in top form since, however, firing eight shutout innings and striking out a season-best 11 batters in a no-decision against Houston on July 14 and following up with seven sharp frames to beat Philadelphia six days later. Lincecum held the Phillies to two runs and five hits that night to notch only his second victory since April.
The slightly built righty also has a history of success against San Diego, having compiled a 10-4 record with an outstanding 2.03 ERA in 20 career starts. Lincecum bested the Padres by yielding only one unearned run and three hits through eight innings in an April 28 outing at AT&T Park, where the Giants have now won six in a row following Tuesday's 3-2 decision over the Friars.
With the teams deadlocked at 2-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, Brandon Belt drew a leadoff walk off Padres reliever Joe Thatcher and Angel Pagan followed with a single before both runners advanced on a passed ball by catcher Yasmani Grandal. Brandon Crawford then delivered a base hit up the middle to plate Belt and give San Francisco its ninth triumph in its last 11 contests.
"It feels good, obviously," Crawford said afterward. "I've been coming through lately in clutch situations and getting RBI's, and to do it at home and in the bottom of the ninth is even better."
Pagan contributed on the defensive end as well, coming up with a diving catch on a line drive off the bat of Carlos Quentin with one out and Chase Headley on first. The center fielder then threw to first to double off Headley and keep the score tied.
"A fabulous catch by Pagan, no doubt about it saved the game," admitted Padres manager Bud Black. "One of the best games I've seen in a long, long time."
The win extended San Francisco's lead over second-place Los Angeles in the NL West to 2 1/2 games after the Dodgers lost to St. Louis on Tuesday, and improved the Giants to a sensational 31-16 at home this season.
On a down note, San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval was forced to exit Tuesday's tilt in the third inning after straining his left hamstring, an injury that could land the 2012 All-Star on the disabled list.
"It's really a bad break," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "He's been locked in at the plate and it's a really tough loss."
The Padres, who have now lost in 10 of their last 12 visits to AT&T Park, will try to avoid the sweep behind Jason Marquis this afternoon. The journeyman righty hasn't been bad since joining the team in June, amassing a 3-5 record and a 3.79 ERA in nine appearances, and comes in off back-to-back winning performances.
Marquis started his streak by tossing six innings of two-run ball to down the Dodgers on July 15, then benefited from ample run support in last Friday's assignment against Colorado. The veteran was touched for five runs (3 earned) and nine hits over five innings in that one, but still wound up on the good end of a 9-5 decision.
The 33-year-old has faced San Francisco once previously this year, allowing four runs (2 earned) and nine hits over six innings in an 8-3 Padres' loss at Petco Park on June 7. For his career, Marquis is 5-5 with a 3.07 ERA in 14 games (13 starts) against the Giants.
The Giants took two of three bouts from the Padres in a series held in San Francisco in late April and are 6-2 against San Diego this season.
For more on the Giants, head to McCovey Chronicles.