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Going Down to the Wire

Baseball: Dodgers lose to San Diego, 3-2, setting up dramatic final week that will decide division championship.

September 23, 1996|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Dodger players, listening to the deafening roar of the sellout crowd as they sat among themselves Sunday afternoon, looked at one another, shrugged, and suddenly came to the same realization.

It must be fate.

There can be no other explanation.

The Dodgers, with a chance to virtually put the division race out of reach, instead lost, 3-2, to the San Diego Padres in front of 51,092 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, setting up a dramatic showdown this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

"This is the way it was supposed to be," Dodger second baseman Delino DeShields said. "We both had our chances during the season to put distance between ourselves, but it didn't happen.

"It deserves to go down to the wire.

"That's what everybody wants, right?"

After seven weeks of spring training, 5 1/2 months of the regular season, and enough tragic news and upheaval for a Hollywood script, the Dodgers' season could rest on this final week of games.

The Dodgers (88-68) came to San Diego on Thursday with a half-game lead over the Padres (88-69). After four games, they leave with a half-game lead.

The only thing decided in the four-game split is that it has become mathematically impossible for the National League West division championship to be clinched before Friday at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers, losing twice in the same series for the first time since Aug. 2-4 against the Atlanta Braves, will open a three-game series against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. The Padres will play a two-game series against the Colorado Rockies at home beginning Tuesday.

"There will be satellite dishes going on all over San Diego County on Thursday," Padre right fielder Tony Gwynn said. "We'd like to go into that series at least even. Asking us to sweep there would be tough.

"We know Colorado is going to play us tough, and the Giants would love to knock them off. But we've played too long and too hard to take anybody lightly now. We want to take care of business here, and then let the best man win in L.A., winner take all."

Well, not exactly.

Although neither team openly talks about the consolation prize, it is becoming quite apparent that the loser of the division may still win the wild-card race and be in the playoffs. The Dodgers lead the Montreal Expos (85-70) by 2 1/2 games in the wild-card race, and the Padres have a two-game lead. If the Expos are eliminated, the winner of the division would open the playoffs on the road against the St. Louis Cardinals. The wild-card winner would open at home against the Atlanta Braves.

"I'm not sure which way you'd be better off," Gwynn said. "'It's nice to have that safety net. It makes things a lot easier, but you don't like to think about it.

"We went into spring training focused on winning the division. We played too long and too hard not to win.

"Besides, as Chris [Gwynn] said, 'There ain't no fun raising the wild-card flag.' "

The Dodgers, who had won eight consecutive series until this weekend, also believe there would be a huge difference. You would still be at the same party, they say, but it's almost as if the division winner would be ushered through the front door and the wild-card team would be sneaking through the servant's quarters.

"We try to look at things the old-fashioned way," said Dodger catcher Mike Piazza, who became only the 13th player in the history of Jack Murphy Stadium to homer into the second deck in the eighth inning. "To get to the playoffs is the most important thing, but the wild-card champion doesn't sound too traditional right now."

The Dodgers were hoping to make it a moot point with a victory Sunday. They realized that another victory over the Padres perhaps would not cause an instant celebration, but certainly plans could be made to ice the champagne.

Besides, the Dodgers had Hideo Nomo (16-11) on the mound. They didn't need another no-hitter, just another dominant performance. But at the same site where Nomo clinched the National League West title a year ago, he struggled throughout his five-inning outing.

Any illusions of duplicating Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hit bid ended when Ken Caminiti singled in the first inning, but entering the fifth inning, Nomo still had a 1-0 lead. Raul Mondesi's solo homer in the fourth against Padre starter Andy Ashby (9-5) had the Dodgers believing this could be the day the West was unofficially won.

Yet, it all unraveled in the fifth. Rickey Henderson hit a one-out double into the left-field corner. Henderson immediately made Nomo conscious that if he wasn't careful, he would be stealing third.

"I got into his head a little bit," Henderson said. "I just wanted to mess up his timing a little bit. You got to be concerned when I'm on third."

Nomo peeked over at Henderson. He stepped off the rubber. He even threw over to second.

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