Did Tim Lincecum make his final start as a Giant?
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SAN FRANCISCO – Beyond the outfield wall, a passenger ship is waiting. Up the dugout tunnel, there’s an escape hatch. At the end of Tim Lincecum’s seven-inning start Thursday night, there was the sliver of light known as free agency.

Will he walk into the light? Or when everyone wakes up in Scottsdale for the first calisthenics in another long spring, will No.55 be there in his usual corner locker?

The Giants hope Lincecum will be back. They even think so. But they don’t know so. Nobody does.

That’s why Lincecum’s start Thursday night was such a tangled, awkward moment – and not just when Dodgers right-hander Brian Wilson decided to walk across the field to confront Giants CEO Larry Baer.

It was Lincecum’s last start of the season. It could have been his last start as a Giant.

How do you say goodbye without saying goodbye?

By meeting every sacrifice bunt with a standing ovation, apparently.

“I thought that was one of the best sacrifice bunts I’ve ever had in my life,” said Lincecum, smiling in an oatmeal-gray beanie and woolen coat. “That ovation was pretty special and I’ve always had an awkward way of acknowledging that. But I do have an appreciation and respect for the way they’ve received me.”

Like Barry Zito a night earlier, Lincecum had no grand farewell moment. It certainly was nothing like Mariano Rivera’s walk from the mound at Yankee Stadium, when teammates Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter walked to take the baseball from him and didn’t leave before baseball’s all-time saves king dampened both their shoulders with his tears.

[INSTANT REPLAY: Lincecum goes seven innings as Giants take rubber match with Dodgers]

Like Zito, Lincecum was lifted for a pinch hitter. He put on a jacket, accepted hugs. The closest thing to a sendoff came after the Giants’ 3-2 victory, after the handshake line, and after a brief live interview on the field. Lincecum doffed his cap to the thousands of fans who crowded behind the Giants dugout, many waving handmade signs.

“That might be the first or second time I’ve ever done that,” he said. “I just went with what most people do. It seemed to work.”

Most people, when they reach free agency, chase the biggest buck. Or they go somewhere that fits for them geographically, or where they feel most appreciated. Usually, it’s a mix of all those things.

Well, Lincecum is worth more to the Giants than he is to any other team. He’s comfortable here. It fits him geographically. And he certainly must know that in no corner of the globe will he be appreciated more than he is right here.

He was reminded of that much Thursday night while holding the Dodgers to two runs in seven innings.

He received a no-decision. But very soon, the decision will belong to him. Nobody else.

“I’m just trying to be open minded for what’s coming up, not dismissing anything I haven’t seen yet,” he said. “But I’m a product of familiarity and I like this team so we’ll see what happens."

Lincecum said he would be open to signing a contract with the Giants before he hits free agency, but it’s hard to comment further on that because he hasn’t been offered anything yet. The Giants will extend him a qualifying offer, which is worth just under $14 million for one year, and while he’s expected to turn that down, it would tie him to draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere – something that figures to make his free agency much less free.

There was a time that Lincecum saw the appeal in brushing off his past, and all the expectations that came with it, and starting new someplace else. But his second-half surge, which included that 148-pitch no-hitter on July 13, changed everything.

“I feel I’ve got some upside because I’ve been willing to make some changes,” Lincecum said. “I don’t feel I’m anywhere near where I should be, but you take the positives and move on and I’ve got to be ready for next year.”

If he does shift into nostalgia mode, though, he said the 2010 World Series always would represent the pinnacle for his time as a Giant.

“I’m just one of the most fortunate pitchers in this organization just to be a part of so many things, to have guys around me like Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson, Buster Posey coming up and Pablo Sandoval,” he said. “I mean, the names just don’t end. And to be here and witness all the marvelous things they’ve done and be a part of these teams, it’s been pretty special.”

Lincecum owns the Giants’ only two Cy Young Awards in 50 years. He pitched brilliantly as a starter in one World Series championship and as a lights-out reliever in another. His own no-hitter and Matt Cain’s perfect game last year might be the only pitching performances to rival Lincecum’s two-hit, 14-strikeout masterpiece against the Atlanta Braves in a 1-0 victory in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS.

But Bruce Bochy wants no part of a Lincecum retrospective. That would mean saying goodbye, it would mean turning toward the light. And he wants Lincecum back next season.

“Well, I don’t want to go into that too much,” Bochy said prior to the game. “Because I certainly hope Timmy is back with us. He’s been such a pleasure to have in all my years here and I hope that continues.”

This is a business, and Lincecum is saying all the right things about being open to pitching anywhere, for any team, in any climate, time zone or solar system. When you hit the open market, you don’t close yourself off to anything. Not publicly, anyway.

But goodwill has a price. The Giants will have to pay it. And in the free-agent dance, even the most graceful of partners sometimes step on each others’ feet.

Lincecum has tried to keep his mind on pitching. Now he has no more starts to make. Now it’s just him and the Giants, and the ship, the hatch and the light.

“The positive mindset is the biggest thing going forward,” said Lincecum, “whether I’m pitching here or somewhere else.”