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MIKE DOWNEY

The Padres Are Hardly Shaking in Their Boots

September 23, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

SAN DIEGO — Any 24-hour period in which San Diego's teams can defeat Oklahoma in college football, the Raiders in pro football and the Dodgers in baseball deserves to be circled on calendars, down here among people whose teams have never won a New Year's Day bowl game, a Super Bowl or a World Series.

Everything is pointing toward a knockdown finish in this baseball family feud involving the Gwynn brothers (both Padres), the Worrell brothers (one per side), the Martinez brothers (both Dodgers) and the Hoffman brothers, one of whom, Trevor, saved a huge 3-2 victory Sunday over the Dodgers, who employ his brother Glenn as an official in their farm system.

"It's a seven-round fight," Padre catcher Brian Johnson says, "and it's tied at 2-2."

Right, and remember the Dodgers and Padres could meet seven more times in a National League Championship Series.

"Oooh. What fun that would be," Johnson says.

With the way they overcame No-Hit Nomo and a homer by Mike Piazza that required customs inspection as it traveled toward Mexico, the pumped-up Padres feel they are in pretty good shape, with five games remaining on their schedule. They are trying to make the postseason for the first time since Kirk Gibson's (yes, him) homer killed the Padres on the final night of the 1984 World Series.

A loss here Sunday might have rattled the Pads a little, particularly with even a total pro like Tony Gwynn sensitive of late to everything from umpires expanding the outside corner to a man dressed inside a chicken costume breaking Tony's concentration at the plate. And they had to contend with Nomo, someone whom Rickey Henderson, for one, had never batted against.

But they keep plugging away, the Padres do, prompting Gwynn to say: "From the standpoint of putting some distance between us and Montreal, today's win was humongous."

L.A. is still in the driver's seat, but San Diego sees room for two in the car-pool lane.

Besides, the Padres are still aiming to win this division outright.

"Don't get me wrong, though," Gwynn says. "If this is the way it ends up, we'll take it."

It has taken a dozen seasons to rebuild the Padres, with players such as Hoffman, the former Anaheim high schooler who came here in a five-player deal that cost the organization Gary Sheffield.

Hoffman nailed down his 39th save, fooling Todd Hollandsworth on consecutive changeups for the final out.

"Sometimes you trick 'em," Hoffman said, "and sometimes you don't."

But the three hours that passed between the game's first pitch and Hoffman's last one were filled with tension here in San Diego, with guys such as Gwynn admitting that Montreal's defeat at Atlanta on the scoreboard was of considerable more interest than the Chargers' score updates against the Raiders.

While dodging bullets from the Dodgers over the first few innings, the Padres had to figure out the Macarena-like delivery of Nomo, who was coming off one of the most amazing no-hitters ever pitched.

Henderson, seeing him for the first time, said, "I saw some of that Colorado no-hitter, and my theory was that Colorado swung at a lot of pitches that weren't strikes."

One of the top leadoff hitters ever to play the game, Henderson resolved to be patient at the plate, make Nomo throw strikes.

But plate ump Eric Gregg punched him out on a strike three that was shown on TV replays to be a good foot outside.

"I know! I know!" Henderson said later, smiling. "I just saw the video. I'm going to tell him [Gregg], 'Man, you better look at that one again.' "

Gwynn had studied his own Nomo video.

He said, "Nomo's harder to hit when he's ahead in the count. That much is obvious. And early in this game, he wasn't throwing forkballs for strikes.

"The first one he threw me, I had no idea. None. You're up there almost laughing, like, 'I didn't even see that one. Where'd it go?' [Steve] Finley was the only one of us getting a good swing against Nomo.

"But Rickey was smart. He laid off. He waited for Nomo to throw one over."

Older and a few innings wiser, Henderson came to bat in the fifth inning and clipped Nomo for a double. It was a major turning point, because not only did Nomo have to face Gwynn next, but he had to worry that Henderson might attempt to swipe third.

Henderson agreed that was the key. "Sometimes when I'm on base, I can rattle a pitcher into making a mistake," he said. "Nomo made one to Tony."

Gwynn doubled, Finley homered and the Padres had three runs, which were all they needed.

"We respect Nomo," Padre catcher Johnson said, "but it's not like we were shaking in our boots."

They feel the same way about L.A.

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