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Padres reach the end of the road

Padres reach the end of the road

SAN DIEGO -- Their roller-coaster-ride season having come to a screeching halt, courtesy of the Redbird Express out of St. Louis, the Padres quietly made the rounds late Saturday night in the clubhouse, offering their farewells.

They have no idea what this team will look like when it reassembles in Arizona for Spring Training in late February.

"You're saying goodbye," Mark Loretta was saying, "and then it hits you. This could really be goodbye."

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Fully half of the starting lineup behind starter Woody Williams in Game 3 of the National League Division Series was comprised of potential free agents, including the team's most valuable player in 2005, right fielder Brian Giles.

Others who might have been wearing San Diego colors for the final time included catcher Ramon Hernandez, third baseman Joe Randa and first baseman Robert Fick. The lengthy list, headlined by closer Trevor Hoffman, features pitchers Pedro Astacio, Rudy Seanez and Chris Hammond, first baseman Mark Sweeney and versatile Damian Jackson.

"When things get played out the way they have at this point," Hoffman said, "anything can happen. There are a lot of questions to try to figure out now.

"It's a time to reflect on what happened, and figure out in the next couple of months a way to improve the club. I'll live here the rest of my life -- and this is where I'd like to play the rest of my career."

The air of uncertainty pervaded the clubhouse as it was clearing out for the final time.

"Next year? I don't know," said Sweeney, one of the leaders of the Red Alert unit that held the club together during long patchwork stretches. "It's out of my hands. I think I did well enough to warrant thinking about coming back. Guys like Eric Young, Robert Fick, Damian Jackson, they gave me energy over the course of the season.

"We all pulled for each other and pulled together. It was a great experience. I was proud of the guys, the way they worked and prepared themselves. It was a pleasure."

Shortstop Khalil Greene, one of the club's youthful cornerstones, watched the clubhouse door revolve all season -- through both of his Major League seasons, actually.

"I looked around and almost everybody from last year was gone," Greene said. "I really like this team, the guys. We have a lot of good personalities here, good people. I hope we keep it together, as best we can. But you never know in this game."

"I keep going back to '96," said Hoffman, a Padres fixture for 13 years. "We were able to build on what we did that year and come back in '98. Hopefully, our corps guys will come back and we'll build a team like the one we saw the last couple of days.

"To do that, you want to keep around as many guys as you can."

The biggest name among those unsigned for '06, Hoffman, hardly stirred in a series that the Cardinals dominated with early offense.

The NL Central champs outscored the Padres, 19-2, through the first six innings of the three games, effectively taking Hoffman and the bullpen out of the series.

The game's No. 2 all-time save artist, Hoffman didn't make an appearance until the ninth inning of Game 3. He was trailing, 7-4, after Hernandez had homered in what might have been his final at-bat as a Padre.

"It wasn't an easy year for us," said Giles, by consensus the team's MVP. "We had so many injuries, so many guys had to step up and play big for us. We did that. It wasn't a real consistent year, but we showed some character."

The Padres had one magical run from the end of April through the end of May, a 24-6 surge that enabled them to overcome stretches when they couldn't put anything together.

"I prefer to look at the journey, rather than the destination -- and it was a worthwhile journey," said Loretta, whose mid-May thumb surgery kept him sidelined for two months and brought to the forefront ready reserves such as Jackson and Geoff Blum, now with the White Sox.

"You bond so quickly with guys," Loretta continued. "Like [Joe] Randa. We only played together for about six weeks [after Randa was acquired from the Reds], but I consider him a good friend. We may not be teammates anymore, but we went through a lot together.

"You get this us-against-the-world feeling at times, and that really brings a team together. Yes, it ended on a sour note, but I'd rather get here and fail than not get here.

"Say what you will about us, but we weren't hiding from anybody. They beat us, but we didn't run away. We gave it our best shot. I don't think anyone can question that."

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

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