SAN FRANCISCO -- The final home game of the 2013 season felt an awful lot like the final home game of 2012.
AT&T Park was sold out and buzzing Sunday, and, as they did in Game 2 of the World Series last October, the Giants treated the faithful to a thrilling victory. On the day he signed a five-year contract extension, Hunter Pence lined a bases-loaded single to center field in the ninth inning to give the Giants a 7-6 walk-off win over the San Diego Padres.
The Giants finished strong, winning 10 of their last 15 games. Last year's fall flourish led to a second World Series title in three years, and as players packed up the clubhouse, they felt that this year's finish could help put the Giants back on top in 2014.
"This game was a great way to go into the offseason," Pence said. "One of the goals during the rough times was to dig a little deeper and find a way to get momentum again. I think we did that."
The Giants finished the year 76-86, with the win column including 12 of the walk-off variety. Most of those came in April and May, when the Giants again looked like contenders. By June, it was clear that the pitching staff was running on fumes and the injury bug wasn't going to stop biting. By the end of July, the players were just hopeful they could avoid a fire sale.
The front office kept the team together, even making a statement on the final weekend by agreeing to a $90 million deal with Pence, who got a full no-trade clause and is now a franchise cornerstone. Barry Zito was supposed to be that guy when he signed in December 2006 but went 63-80 with a 4.62 ERA as a Giant. After watching Zito handle the rough times with grace and humility, manager Bruce Bochy concocted a perfect goodbye ceremony.
With the Giants trailing 6-5 in the eighth inning, Zito entered to face former A's teammate Mark Kotsay, who was taking the final swings of a 17-year career.
Zito had twice jogged down to the bullpen, both times receiving standing ovations from the 246th consecutive sellout crowd at AT&T Park. The park shook as Zito started Kotsay with a cutter that has helped prolong his career, then twice threw his famous curveball. With two strikes, Kotsay swung through an 84 mph fastball.
"That was surreal," Zito said. "I had more adrenaline than during the World Series. Having that way of going out as a Giant? Wow."
Zito received another ovation as he walked off the field and tipped his cap in all directions. As he descended the dugout steps, Zito was pushed back out onto the dirt. Teammates stood and applauded as Zito soaked in the appreciation.
"That was one of the best moments of the season," Pence said. "He's been through so much, the good times, the tough times. This was one of those special moments you take in and enjoy."
Zito hugged teammates and took pictures with rookies who were in high school when he signed the infamous seven-year, $126 million deal. When he got to Bochy, Zito was given a long hug from a man who twice pulled him from the rotation this season.
"I had a lot of emotion going through me," Bochy said. "I have some great memories."
A few more were created Sunday, the most emotional day of the season from start to finish. Bryan Stow, the Giants fan brutally beaten at Dodger Stadium two years ago, was a surprise guest and was shown on the AT&T Park scoreboard between innings. Stow waved to cheering fans while repeatedly saying, "Thank you."
The Giants trailed 6-3 after six innings and lost two starters to injury. Brandon Crawford strained his oblique and Gregor Blanco sprained his ankle on a ninth-inning outfield collision that looked much worse than it ended up being. Both players will begin the offseason with MRIs.
Blanco had to be walked off the field by two trainers. With the Giants trailing 6-5, he watched from the clubhouse as his replacement, Francisco Peguero, led off the ninth inning with his first major league homer. The Giants loaded the bases with no outs, setting the stage for Pence.
The right fielder began his day on a different dais, joining Bochy, assistant general manager Bobby Evans and president and CEO Larry Baer to formally announce a contract extension.
"I don't know how we could have replaced what Hunter does on and off the field," Bochy said. "He's a manager's dream."
Pence promised to stay that way.
"It's a pretty big investment," said Pence, who became the first San Francisco Giant to start every game of the season. "It's not going to be taken lightly. I want to be a better ballplayer."
He's already a pretty good one, having hit .283 this season with 27 homers and 99 RBIs, the last of which came in the bottom of the ninth and moved the reigning champions from fourth place in the National League West to a tie for third.
Expectations are higher along McCovey Cove, and the Giants raised the stakes this weekend by moving quickly to keep Pence off the market. Evans said they would try to re-sign Tim Lincecum before he becomes a free agent, and left-hander Javier Lopez expressed a desire to return, as well.
The front office will spend the offseason tweaking the roster, but for the most part, the Giants are again getting the band back together. The group played the wrong tune in 2013, but as the Giants replaced a season-ending parade down Market Street with one toward the airport, they insisted that next season would be better. They believe the push started Sunday.
"I couldn't have written the story any better today," Bochy said. "It's a great way to finish."