MERCED — As the pennant race began to heat up, Brian Fuentes found his mind wasn't on baseball.
The reliever, a product of Merced High and Merced College, unexpectedly found himself in St. Louis after the Oakland A's released him in early July.
Fuentes made six appearances with the Cardinals before requesting a leave from the team to deal with family issues in Merced. He was placed on the restricted list and opted not to return in the 2012 season.
The four-time All-Star made his final pitch in an Aug. 8 outing against the Giants.
Fuentes announced his retirement last weekend, ending a 12-year career.
"Ultimately, I was just having trouble with the time away from my family," Fuentes said. "I've been playing baseball for all of their lives, but I'd never been so far away as when I was in St. Louis.
"I think at one point I went like two months without seeing them. Coming home and being able to put them to bed at night made me realize what I was missing."
Fuentes finished the year 2-2 with a 7.20 earned run average and five saves in 32 appearances between the A's and Cardinals.
While it wasn't the final season Fuentes would have hoped for statistically, he was pleased to go out on his terms.
"Physically, I felt great," Fuentes said. "My arm was strong. I've kept myself in good shape and never really had any major injuries over the course of my career.
"I felt like there was something left in the tank, but ultimately you start thinking about what you're playing for.
"When you're a kid, you get into it because you love the game. As I was fortunate enough to have opportunities in college, it got a little more serious.
"Once I got to the pros, it became very serious. As you climb the ladder and more money gets involved, it changes. Things like arbitration and contract negotiations take some of the joy out of it.
"I've had a great career. I never dreamed I'd have had the opportunities or some of the successes that I've had.
"I'm very grateful for my peers and the friendships that I've made."
The left-hander with an unusual sidearm delivery recorded 204 career saves, ranking him 41st all time. Fuentes is sixth on the all-time list for saves from a southpaw.
He finishes with a 26-43 record, a 3.62 ERA and 639 strikeouts.
He pitched in three postseasons, including the 2009 American League Championship Series with the Los Angeles Angels and the 2007 World Series with the Colorado Rockies.
He also represented the United States in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.
"That's probably the one memory that sticks out most in my mind," Fuentes said. "Probably the proudest moment of my career was pitching in the World Baseball Classic.
"I remember that first game against Canada. To be out on that line wearing USA on your jersey, surrounded by Hall of Famers, while the national anthem played. It was a special feeling."
Many around Merced have followed Fuentes' rise from the early days as a Bear and Blue Devil until his final pitch.
MC head coach Chris Pedretti was among the group that witnessed the announcement at the Blue Devils' annual golf tournament over the weekend.
"Watching his career has been a lot of fun, not just for myself, but for a lot of people around Merced," Pedretti said. "Obviously he had some talent, but there's no way you expect someone coming through our program to have the kind of success he's enjoyed.
"The same goes for Doug Fister. It couldn't have happened to two nicer guys. Guys that care about and want to be a part of this community.
"For Tito to 'Come back to his roots,' as he said and make the announcement at our golf tournament was very touching."
Fuentes said he has no plans for the immediate future other than reconnecting with his family and enjoying some leisurely time.
He said he'll still be involved in the Merced community, including his usual cameos at Merced College's winter baseball practices.
"I'm looking forward to a little extra time to go hunting or just not feel like I'm on a timetable," Fuentes said. "Even now, I'd usually be worried about throwing and training to get ready for the upcoming year.
"It'll be nice to be able to relax for a while."