He didn't play in the game. And he didn't speak to reporters before or after the game, begging off beforehand and slipping out with earbuds securely in place shortly after the Giants secured their third straight win.

But Tim Lincecum was still a dominant presence Thursday afternoon.

That's because Thursday was supposed to be Lincecum's turn in the starting rotation. But Bruce Bochy decided to skip Lincecum in light of his brutal struggles the past six outings, to give him time to work on his mechanics and take a mental break.

Slipping into Lincecum's place came bullpen swingman Yusmeiro Petit.

And after Petit's outing, Lincecum's place in the rotation is even more in question than it was when the day started.

Petit was more than impressive, pitching six innings, giving up one run, striking out nine, allowing zero walks. And, oh yeah, setting a major-league record for consecutive batters retired. Not bad for a guy whose role on the team isn't quite defined.

So what happens Tuesday in Colorado?

"These are the things we'll talk about," Bochy said. "But it's hard to change things after an effort like that. And it gives Timmy a chance to continue to work on some things."

Bochy was prepared to use Lincecum out of the bullpen on Thursday. But Petit's efficient, effective, record-setting outing made Lincecum unnecessary.

Not all the fans were happy. I spoke to a couple that had bought tickets hoping to see Lincecum and were disappointed. He's still, no matter what his record or his ERA, one of the most beloved Bay Area athletes of all time. And if he starts warming up for a relief appearance this weekend at AT&T Park, you can be sure that the crowd will be deafening in its enthusiasm and support.

Lincecum's struggles are puzzling. His inconsistency is maddening, yet he has had incredibly effective moments during the season, where it looked as if he had found a rhythm and a new way to pitch. In August he had a 7.94 ERA. In June he pitched a no-hitter. Before his recent six-start slump, he spent a month being one of the Giants' most consistent and reliable pitchers. In other words, you would have sounded foolish a few weeks ago saying that Lincecum is done as a starter. Yet plenty of people are saying that right now.

Most of Lincecum's problems stem from mechanics. But Bochy believes pitchers get out of sync because they're pressing mentally.

"He needs to clear his head," Bochy said.

I have another theory about Lincecum's recent slump. His skid started with an 8-1 loss to the Dodgers on July 25. In that game, Hector Sanchez was behind the plate, but he took a blow to the head in the fourth inning and came out of the game. That was the last game Sanchez played for the Giants. Lincecum unraveled in the fifth inning and has been coming apart ever since.

Is it a coincidence that Lincecum's struggles coincide with Sanchez's absence?

"That's a hard one to answer," Bochy said. "I know Timmy was getting used to throwing to Hector. It could've played a part."