SAN FRANCISCO – Atlanta's Derek Lowe is the tested postseason veteran. Tim Lincecum is 11 years his junior making his playoff debut for San Francisco.
While Lowe's spectacular September put him among the National League's best over the final month, Lincecum emerged as the most dominant pitcher in the NL in his first two full major league seasons.
The two power right-handers face off Thursday night when the Braves and Giants play Game 1 of their division series opener at AT&T Park.
Lowe is on a roll. He won his last five regular-season starts with a 1.17 ERA. Lincecum rebounded in September after a career-worst five-start losing streak in August.
"The way September went was the way you envisioned pitching every month," Lowe said.
Lincecum is the two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star.
Lowe, a 16-game winner like Lincecum, is a big reason the Braves reached the playoffs.
"He's a lot different pitcher right now than he was in the first half of the season," said manager Bobby Cox, whose Braves clinched the NL wild card in his farewell season. "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 with Lincecum coming through over the final month, and he hopes to carry that momentum into his playoff debut.
"Things got a little bit more crucial," Lincecum said Wednesday of his successful September. "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. Just changing my between-starts routine, going a little bit harder and doing a little bit more conditioning."
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, though Bochy said outfielder Aaron Rowand made the team. 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. San Francisco also clinched in Game 162.
Lowe will make his 11th career start and 22nd appearance in the playoffs.
"It's something I've always enjoyed, pitching in big games," Lowe said. "The Giants really don't care about my past."
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.
All the numbers and matchups mean little now. The Braves are playing to extend their special year for Cox. Like Atlanta, the Giants 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."
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 in 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.
He 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."