LOS ANGELES — The Padres tried to be cautious, but they couldn't squelch their enthusiasm Friday night before the game.
They had just made up four games in eight days on San Francisco. Giants pitchers were falling faster than interest rates. And the Padres were playing their best baseball of the season.
They took the field against the Dodgers with the enthusiasm of a high school football team, but before even completing their first turn at bat, the game was as good as over because of a simple third-strike call.
Tony Gwynn, of all people, was ejected in the first inning, and when he left, the Padre heart and soul went with him.
The result was a 6-3 loss in front of 38,250 at Dodger Stadium, and the sign above Gwynn's locker reflected the feelings of the clubhouse.
"Don't ask me . . . about it."
Signed, Tony Gwynn.
It was just the second time in Gwynn's seven-year big-league career that he has been ejected, and only the third time in his entire pro career.
It happened like this:
Roberto Alomar was standing on second with one out with Gwynn at the plate. Dodger pitcher John Wetteland quickly got ahead and on a one-and-two pitch threw a low fastball.
Gwynn started to swing, held up, and stepped away from the batter's box as the ball caromed off catcher Mike Scioscia's mitt. Scioscia picked it up and appealed to third-base umpire Jerry Layne.
Layne hesitated, then raised his right arm.
Gwynn stared at him in disbelief.
Finally, after several seconds of staring, Gwynn walked to the dugout. Backwards.
Gwynn was halfway there, and Jack Clark stepping into the on-deck circle, when it happened.
Layne, a Pacific Coast League umpire subbing for the vacationing Terry Tata, threw his hand up again. This time signaling an ejection.
Gwynn was livid.
He dropped his bat over his head and charged toward Layne, screaming every step of the way. Third-base Coach Sandy Alomar stepped in between Gwynn and Layne, making sure that Gwynn did not do anything foolish. Manager Jack McKeon was right behind.
Gwynn was escorted away by Alomar, and McKeon picked up where Gwynn left off.
Never mind that a minor-league umpire had the gall to eject a five-time All-Star and three-time batting champion. McKeon wanted to know how in the world Layne could possibly hear what Gwynn was saying some 120 feet away.
Well, McKeon reasoned, it's a known fact that those who have difficulty seeing tend to make up for it with their hearing.
"That's what you get when you have a triple-A umpire filling in," McKeon said. "Thirty-eight thousand people didn't come here to see Jerry Layne; they came here to see Tony Gwynn."
McKeon voiced his same complaints loud and clear to Layne, and after he was done with him, he cut loose on home-plate umpire Dana DeMuth. When the inning ended on Clark's strikeout, McKeon decided he wasn't quite finished and went back to home plate for a few more minutes of argument.
Once Gwynn departed, everything that they had attained of late--strong pitching, clutch hitting and solid defense--seemed to abandon them at once.
They collected just one hit through the first five innings. They committed three errors in the game--with Alomar (22) and catcher Benito Santiago (15) each padding their league leads--leading to two unearned runs. Starter Ed Whitson (14-8) lost his second consecutive game for the first time since June 10-June 21, when he had a three-game losing streak. He now has dropped his past three starts against the Dodgers.
Beforehand, the Padres weren't expecting anything like this.
"We're playing like we were the second half of last season," McKeon said. "You know, I think we can creep back and win this damn thing before anyone realizes what's going on."
Said Gwynn: "We haven't even been close to winning since '84, and now we've got a chance. Man, I think we can do it. I really can."
But the Dodgers took a seemingly comfortable 4-0 lead into the sixth. They scored the first run in the fourth when Willie Randolph reached first base on Alomar's throwing error, went to second on Lenny Harris' groundout and scored on Eddie Murray's single to right.
In the fifth, Santiago was the benefactor. Scioscia, the No. 8 hitter, singled to left with one out. Wetteland laid down a bunt in front of home plate, trying to sacrifice Scioscia to second. Instead, everyone was safe when Santiago picked up the ball and dropped it.
The Dodgers immediately capitalized. Alfredo Griffin lined a double past Clark at first, driving in one run, and Randolph hit a bloop double into left field, scoring two more.
The Padres finally broke loose in the eighth, and threatened to record their 31st comeback victory of the season. Tim Flannery, pinch-hitting for the sixth consecutive game, opened the inning with a single to center. Bip Roberts followed with a walk. Alomar singled, loading the bases. And when pinch-hitter Chris James singled to left, scoring Flannery and Roberts, the Padres had cut the deficit to 4-3 with runners on first and second and no outs.