SAN FRANCISCO -- It's been a somewhat odd contrast the last couple nights at AT&T Park. On Wednesday, there was a pervading understanding that those in attendance were witnessing Barry Zito's last start as a Giant, a feeling of finality to Zito's comments after the game, and yet there was no sendoff moment as Zito was lifted for a pinch hitter after just five innings and 77 pitches.
Thursday night, the announced crowd of 41,221 seemed intent on seizing every possible chance of showing their appreciation for Tim Lincecum, who will be a free agent when this season is over. They gave him a standing ovation after he put down a sacrifice bunt in the fifth. They did again as he left the mound in the seventh, his final inning. And yet following what may have been Lincecum's final start as a Giant, nobody wanted to shut the door on his tenure in San Francisco.
"It just felt like the last start of a season," Lincecum said. "Not anything more than that."
"We don't know what's going to happen," said manager Bruce Bochy. "But I was very happy for him with the job that he did tonight.
"We all know what he's done in his career. It's amazing what he's done at his age. And to pitch tonight the way he did, that's really neat to see the fans behind him. Like I said, we don't know what's going to happen, but certainly hope that he's here with us."
In what at least will be his final start of 2013, Lincecum allowed two runs over seven innings, struck out six and left in a 2-2 game. The Giants won 3-2 on Angel Pagan's home run in the eighth and finished the year winning six of Lincecum's final seven starts. Lincecum finishes the year 10-14 with a 4.37 ERA, avoiding tying his career high of 15 losses set last year, and missing his fifth 200-strikeout season by seven.
And will it be his final start in the orange and black? Lincecum hardly broached the topic Thursday night, saying: "I'm just trying to be open-minded about what's coming up. I keep repeating myself, I'm not dismissing anything that I haven't seen yet. But I'm a product of familiarity and I like this team, so with that in mind, we'll see what happens."
In seven professional seasons, all with the Giants, the right-hander is 89-70 with a 3.46 ERA and 1,510 strikeouts in 221 starts. The strikeouts are the third-most by any pitcher since 1900 in his first seven seasons, behind only Tom Seaver and Bert Blyleven.
Add to those numbers four All-Star selections, two Cy Young awards, two World Series rings -- and arguably the distinction of being the most beloved player in San Francisco in recent history, the face that helped transition the Giants out of the Barry Bonds era. There's a reason some began calling him "The Franchise."
That much was on display Thursday. After Lincecum put down a sacrifice bunt that hugged the third-base line, moving Nick Noonan to second base with one out, he was greeted with a rousing ovation as he jogged back to the dugout.
"Yeah, I thought that was one of the best sacrifice bunts I ever gave in my life," he said with a smile. "I was like, man, that must have been great."
Lincecum said he has an "awkward way of acknowledging" the support of the fans, but he did tip his cap to the crowd later in the game. "I think that might've been the first or second time I've ever done that," he said. "I just went with what most people do, and it worked."
Unlike with Zito, who drew the ire of fans for years before winning many over with his playoff heroics last season, the fans have never turned their back on Lincecum, even as he struggled mightily through the past two seasons. He went 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA last year and fell out of the postseason rotation before shining as a reliever as the Giants won their second World Series in three seasons. Entering his final start Thursday, his 29 losses over the past two years were the most in the majors.
It can be argued, though, that Lincecum made strides this season. His ERA was four-fifths of a run lower than in 2012. In 14 of his 32 starts, he received one or zero runs of support. And of course, there was his start July 13 in San Diego, when he harkened back to some of his old dominance in throwing the 15th no-hitter in Giants franchise history.
Lincecum has been candid about having to adjust to changes in his body and repertoire. He's no longer the wunderkind blowing high-90s fastballs past hitters out of that odd contortionist's delivery. He ramped up his training over this offseason after admitting he tired out in the second half last year.
Thursday night, he acknowledged that after striking out Yasiel Puig in the first inning on a 93 mph fastball, he "kind of bought into that a little too much and forgot about my location and the other pitches that I wanted to go to. And that's where I kind of faltered."
It's all part of maturing and evolving. And while consistency still seems to elude him at times -- Lincecum actually finished with a higher ERA after the All-Star Break than in the first half -- he said he's focusing on positives heading into the offseason.
"I said the other day I feel like I've got some upside just because I've been able to make some changes," Lincecum said. "I don't feel like I'm anywhere near where I feel like I should be, but you've got to take the positives with it and move on and get ready for next year."
Wherever that may be. The Giants would seem in a position where they might seriously try to bring Lincecum back. They have only two members of their rotation returning for sure next year -- Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner -- with options on Ryan Vogelsong and Zito. Though Yusmeiro Petit has had some impressive outings, and Chad Gaudin filled in nicely before his own injury, Vogelsong's loss earlier this year exposed a lack of big-league starting depth in the Giants' system.
But there remains, of course, the possibility of another team swooping in with an offer that Lincecum can't refuse -- or that the Giants won't want to match. If that happens, the Giants and their fans will have to get used to the sight of Lincecum in another uniform. It's something that can't be ruled out -- but that nobody Thursday night seemed to want to consider.
"I don't know," said catcher Buster Posey, "I was thinking about winning the game."
As was Lincecum.
"I was just focused on trying to get the win today," he said. "Not anything bigger -- or less -- than that."
* In other game action, Pagan's tie-breaking home run in the eighth was his first at home since the walk-off, inside-the-park homer May 25 that marked his final appearance on the field for three months. Replays showed the ball bounced off the top of the wall in left and over, with Pagan pumping his fist as it did. Bochy reiterated afterward that the Giants, who were 27-22 and tied for first when Pagan went down, felt his absence "more than we even thought." They are 15-11 since he returned to the lineup Aug. 30.
* In a weird post-game scene, former Giants closer Brian Wilson crossed the field during the Giants' post-game handshake line and appeared to confront President and CEO Larry Baer. CSN Bay Area is reporting that Wilson was upset about not having yet received his 2012 World Series ring, despite multiple attempts by the Giants to get it to him.
Wilson only got into one game during this series -- the first one -- but he did receive a hearty round of boos when he walked down to the dugout during Thursday's game.
* Brandon Belt went 2-for-4 with two doubles and is batting .325 and slugging over .500 since the All-Star Break. Though it may seem minor with the Giants limping to the finish line, Belt has really seemed to embrace moving into the No. 3 spot in the order, where he is now batting .318 on the season in 45 games.
* Along with winning just their second series at home since July, the Giants secured their first winning month since May. They're 14-10 in September, so if there's any momentum to be carried over into the offseason from such a disappointing year, the Giants are doing their best to build it.
Now it's down to the final series, with the Padres arriving Friday. Here are the pitching probables:
Friday: RHP Burch Smith (1-2, 5.87) vs. RHP Ryan Vogelsong (3-6, 5.90)
Saturday: LHP Eric Stults (10-13, 3.94) vs. RHP Yusmeiro Petit (4-0, 2.84)
Sunday: RHP Tyson Ross (3-8, 3.10) vs. RHP Matt Cain (8-10, 4.00)
Oh, one more thing. Bochy said Thursday he isn't ruling out the possibility of using Zito again at some point this weekend, which would give Zito a chance at an AT&T send-off. In fact, Bochy said, "there's a good chance he may be out there" -- and he wasn't talking about sending Zito up in a sacrifice situation.
"Yeah, no," Bochy said with a grin. "He's not going to hit."
So keep an eye out for that.
-- Matt Kawahara