SAN DIEGO — Call it the grounder for all season.
If the Padres' summer could be frozen into one play--not that anybody could bear to watch it--then that play was in the fifth inning of Tuesday night's 9-1 loss to the New York Mets.
The score was tied, 1-1. There were two out and nobody on base, and Padre pitcher Jimmy Jones had allowed just two hits.
Then Mookie Wilson hit it. A grounder, right back to the mound. A nice, easy, throw-it-back-to-Daddy-now bouncer.
It was hit in the same direction that Keith Hernandez had hit three missiles in the past two days, only to watch all three caught in the kind of plays for which they designed "This Week in Baseball."
But this ball was simple. It took a high hop into Jones' glove. He smiled, spun to first, reared back to throw, then realized something was missing. The ball. It had dropped from the glove to the mound and was rolling around in the dirt.
Wilson was safe on first with a charitable single. For want of a glove, a game was . . . well, you know the rest.
A couple of pitches later, Wally Backman singled to right. Three pitches after that, Hernandez took a two-strike changeup and placed it into the right-field seats for his 14th homer, and the Padres were finished.
Fighting to get out of last place, the Padres have lost two straight and five of their last seven on this home stand. And fans can only wonder if Jones' description of the grounder would serve as an apt eventual eulogy for this team and this season.
"I thought I had it. I thought it was a piece of cake," said Jones. "I got it in my glove and I said, 'Oh yeah, OK.' Then I turn around to throw it, and the ball is not there. I had no idea I dropped it, but it just wasn't there.
"Even then, if I had known where the ball was, I could have got down and grabbed it and still made the play. It wasn't that tough. But I didn't hear anybody yelling where the ball was, probably because I thought I knew."
Jones shook his head. "It was just a little grounder, and you don't get beat by a little grounder. But sometimes the things it can lead up to . . . "
Padre Manager Larry Bowa sighed. "A very fieldable ball. The ones you don't expect the pitchers to make are those line drives. But these, you expect."
Getting that third out, making that tiny play--that was the Padres' problem all evening in front of 15,765 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
After the Padres fell behind, 5-1, on two-out hits, the inevitable happened in the ninth, when the Mets scored three runs with less than two out and added another with two out to complete the scoring.
Reliever Keith Comstock, who allowed one run in two-thirds of that inning, completed the picture. He spiked first baseman John Kruk when both of them covered first on a failed double play attempt. Comstock was relieving Greg Booker, who came on to start the ninth and allowed three runs in one-third of an inning. Relief from this kind of game is suddenly something Bowa needs badly.
"Some guys just aren't doing the job out there," Bowa said. "And what they are doing, they are making my decisions for me next year. They are making them early. I don't have to make them. They are making me now."
Someone asked Bowa if he just meant the bullpen.
"It could be anybody," he said. "If the shoe fits, wear it."
And when given that two-out fit Tuesday, the Padres squirmed.
Met fourth. Two out. Darryl Strawberry hits a shot to left off third baseman Chris Brown. He dives and stops it, but the throw is late. Lee Mazzilli, making only his 14th start this season, draws a walk. Gary Carter takes a 2-2 pitch and puts it just past Tim Flannery into center field. One run.
Met eighth. Two out. Strawberry is on third after walking and stealing two bases. Howard Johnson picks a pitch from newly acquired reliever Dave Leiper and bounces it past Flannery into center field. One run.
By then, at least, Jones was not to blame. The rookie had a great August. He went 3-1 with a 3.13 ERA and allowed just 30 hits in 31 innings.
Jones slipped into the seventh inning, gave up a double to pitcher David Cone, and was gone. In six-plus innings, he had allowed four runs on seven hits.
Suddenly, in his last two starts, he has two losses and has allowed 17 hits and seven runs in 13 innings. And in the battle among young Padre arms, his record as a starter--4-6 with a 5.12 ERA--may prove damaging. Whatever problems the rookie had been experiencing, the rookie was working them out.
On the other side Tuesday, rookie Cone, a 24-year-old right-hander, proved how the Mets fairly stole him from Kansas City this spring. Since he missed nearly three months this season with a broken right finger, he was been mostly outstanding.
He walked the first batter he faced--Stanley Jefferson in the first--but then got Tony Gwynn on a double-play grounder to end it.
He allowed a one-out homer to Benito Santiago in the second, Santiago's 15th, but then retired the next four hitters.
Overall, he allowed one run on three hits in 7 innings.