As they did last year, the Giants teased us into believing the impossible would happen, that this team's mix of youth and middle-aged men would enthrall fans with a captivating last-minute rush to the playoffs, and when San Francisco defeated San Diego on Sept. 9, the club was tied for second in the National League Wild Card race, a mere 1 1/2 games out.One last memorable push and they'd be in the postseason. But all hopes ended with a collapse on a 10-game road trip from Sept. 15-24, when they went 1-8 with one rainout and were outscored 93-51 during a tour of St. Louis, Colorado and Milwaukee. A day later, they were eliminated, and suddenly it was remembered that San Francisco would have 11 free agents by season's end -- who would go, who would stay? -- including venerable manager Felipe Alou in what could be his baseball farewell after 51 seasons. Record: 76-85, third in the NL West Defining moment: Losing a 14-4 decision at St. Louis, and 20-8 and 12-4 decisions at Colorado on the final road junket. The starting pitchers yielded 26 runs in the first inning overall over nine road games and averaged only 3.925 innings per start, the lowest being Noah Lowry's 1 1/3-inning effort at Denver, and Jonathan Sanchez's two frames at St. Louis.
What went right: Amazing resurgence by second baseman Ray Durham, who hit a career-high 26 homers and batted nearly .300, helped by a switch from the leadoff position to the fifth spot, where he capitalized on having Shea Hillenbrand, Barry Bonds and Moises Alou batting ahead of him. Bonds' legs got stronger as the season wore on, and he finished with a flourish. Hillenbrand excelled at first base and provided much-needed punch after being acquired from Toronto.What went wrong: Season-ending injuries to catcher Mike Matheny and relievers Tim Worrell and Armando Benitez; a rocky first half by Bonds; sporadic hitting overall; a severe ankle sprain that knocked Alou out for a month, and a lumbar strain for 15 days; and a rotation that started off weakly, had a mid-year surge, then stunningly struggled down the stretch. Biggest surprise: The emergence and zest of unheralded catcher Eliezer Alfonzo, who rose from obscurity at Double-A Connecticut to stardom with the Giants when veteran Matheny was felled with a severe concussion. Alfonzo hit at a .300 clip until September, and he did well behind the plate, filling a vital role as backup Todd Greene suffered from shoulder problems. STATISTICAL LEADERS
Average: Moises Alou, .301
Doubles: Pedro Feliz, 35
Triples: Steve Finley, 12
Home runs: Barry Bonds, Ray Durham, 26
Runs: Omar Vizquel, 88
RBIs: Pedro Feliz, 98
Stolen bases: Omar Vizquel, 24
Wins: Matt Cain, 13
Losses: Matt Morris, 15
ERA (starter): Jason Schmidt, 3.59
ERA (reliever): Mike Stanton, 3.09
Saves: Armando Benitez, 17
FORECAST FOR 2007
Lineup: Randy Winn is all but assured of being the leadoff batter, with Vizquel No. 2 in the order. Expect Hillenbrand to be re-signed and hit third, while Bonds should, and could return as a cleanup hitter. Durham had one of his best years in 2006, but he could be pricey, and a long-term deal seems unlikely. Kevin Frandsen could be the starter at second. Alou would bat sixth if the Giants feel he can stay relatively injury-free, always a big question. Pedro Feliz will bat seventh -- his production sagged over the final months, but the Giants love his RBI-producing bat. No. 8 might be Matheny if he's cleared to play after dealing with concussion symptoms. With 11 free agents, multiple changes could be in store.
Rotation: Let's face it, Cain could be next year's ace at age 22. It's iffy if veteran Schmidt will return -- he'll be a hot commodity -- but Morris will be in the second year of his three-year deal, while lefty Noah Lowry should improve after a troubled season. Sanchez might be in the rotation as well, but it's anyone's guess after that.Bullpen: Stanton could be the closer, if Benitez's arthritic knees aren't healthy enough. Kevin Correia is a lock for a role, and Jack Taschner and Brian Wilson look solid as well. Lefty Steve Kline might be gone, and Vinnie Chulk probably will be invited back to battle for a job in the spring. Jamey Wright might return as a long man, but a lot depends on whether setup man Tim Worrell recovers from shoulder surgery and a cervical strain. Biggest need: Younger, stronger, healthier players -- that's general manager Brian Sabean's battle cry -- but a power-hitting outfielder will be a priority, with Bonds fading and Alou possibly gone.
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.