THE GIANTS WHO BEAT THE ASTROS ON OPENING DAY LOOKED nothing like the club that seven months later would celebrate its first World Series championship since moving to San Francisco. That's not just because Brian Wilson, who closed out the 5-2 win for the first of what would be a major-league-best 48 saves, hadn't yet adopted the dyed black beard that would make him famous—and intimidating—come October. That spring evening in Houston the Giants started only one player, first baseman Aubrey Huff, who stayed put through the end of the regular season. Some of those Opening Day starters (third baseman Pablo Sandoval, shortstop Edgar Renteria and centerfielder Aaron Rowand) became role players, another (second baseman Juan Uribe) switched positions, and still others (catcher Bengie Molina, rightfielder John Bowker) changed teams.
The wins came early but not easily. By late April the team's TV announcer Duane Kuiper was using the phrase "Giants baseball: torture" to describe its predilection for close, nerve-racking games. While the hitters sputtered, the pitching thrived behind a rotation with three of the best young arms in baseball: 26-year-olds Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and 27-year-old Jonathan Sanchez. General manager Brian Sabean set about remaking the offense, promoting catcher Buster Posey from the minors and signing outfielder Pat Burrell, who had been released by the Rays. Posey, 23, quickly settled into the middle of San Francisco's lineup and made a push for NL Rookie of the Year honors by batting .305 with 18 home runs. Meanwhile Burrell found his power stroke, smashing 18 homers in 96 games.
Sabean also landed veterans Jose Guillen from the Royals and Cody Ross from the Marlins, but the Giants were still 6½ games behind the Padres in late August. San Francisco worked its way up to a tie for first on Sept. 10, and the two teams traded the division lead seven times before the Giants claimed first for good by beating the Rockies 4-2 on the penultimate Sunday of the season.
San Francisco carried a three-game lead into the final weekend, a three-game set against the Padres at AT&T Park, needing just one win to wrap up the title. But in typically torturous fashion it lost on Friday and Saturday to see its lead whittled to a game. On the last day of the season the Giants clinched the pennant, beating the Padres 3-0 behind the pitching of Sanchez and five relievers, among them lefty Javier Lopez, yet another midseason addition.
When it was over, Posey ran out to embrace Wilson, and they were mobbed by their teammates. They might not have looked like the team that started the season, but all that mattered to the delirious sellout crowd was what San Francisco had become: champions.