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10/04/09 8:34 PM EST

Padres pleased despite loss in finale

Eckstein's two-run shot helps fuel game-tying rally

SAN DIEGO -- Now comes the hard part for the Padres, who were still brimming with optimism Sunday, giddy from a blissful two-month stretch where they went toe-to-toe with the best in the National League.

"Now," Padres closer Heath Bell said between hugs and handshakes with teammates, "all we've got to do is do it for six months."

A full season with this roster, the one that ended the season with a 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants in 10 innings, has the Padres are hoping a brighter and bigger future awaits them in 2010.

"We came together the last two months of the season and you saw a vast improvement," Padres veteran second baseman David Eckstein said. "We have got something special going on in here."

The Padres (75-87) ended the season with 12 more victories than they did a year ago in that miserable 99-loss season. They also ended this season with a roster that underwent what qualifies as a dramatic facelift during the season.

Not an ideal plan, by any stretch, but one that was required after the team flopped in the months of June (9-17) and July (8-20). The Padres used players who are young in Major League service time, forcing them to sink or swim.

They finished fast, taking 14 of their final 20 series of the season, including two against the Dodgers and two against the Rockies, teams that are headed to the National League Division Series next week.

"I like the way we ended the season as a whole and how the roster transitioned," Padres manager Bud Black said. "Some players became the players we think they can become. They showed they had the ability to become big leaguers."

Of course, the old standbys weren't so bad either, like Eckstein, who Sunday helped the Padres get back into a game they trailed 3-0, hitting a two-run home run to trim the Giants' lead to 3-2 in the seventh inning.

The Padres would eventually tie the game in the eighth inning but lost it when Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval hit a go-ahead home run in the 10th inning against Ryan Webb (2-1), a ball that traveled 444 feet to left-center field.

The Padres looked like they were going to score one run and possibly two in the second inning against Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez when Oscar Salazar looped a ball down the right-field line that was waved foul by umpire Larry Vanover.

However, replays showed the ball kicked up chalk down the line. Salazar got on base eventually on a fielder's choice, though the Padres wouldn't score in that inning and wouldn't score until Eckstein's home run in the sixth inning.

But even the loss didn't dampen the mood in the clubhouse after the game, as players said their goodbyes. Bell handed out hugs, other packed boxes for the winter. A lot of them just hung around, in no hurry to go anywhere.

"It's a great family; we don't want the season to end," said Bell, who saved 42 games in his first season as a Major League closer, made the All-Star team and proved to be an apt replacement for Trevor Hoffman.

"I think the organization knows that. We've got Minor League guys here who have outperformed playoff teams [the last two months]," Bell said. "We kept mowing people down."

Now comes the hard part, showing that this two-month run wasn't an aberration. They'll get that chance starting in February in Spring Training. Before then, a yet-to-be-named general manager will have to evaluate what the Padres have and what they need.

First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who finished the season with 40 home runs and 99 RBIs, knows exactly what the Padres need moving forward, and in his opinion, it's already started.

"This team is young and there's a lot of talent," Gonzalez said. "The next thing we need is experience."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.