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Beginning of the End?

Giants: In a see-saw game, they defeat Padres, 8-5, and expand their lead in the NL West to two games.

September 22, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — When it was over, when Manager Dusty Baker could exhale and reliever Rod Beck could joke about his tumbling catch and tag of San Diego Padre pinch-hitter Derrek Lee at home on a play that could have dropped the San Francisco Giants back into a first-place tie in the NL West, they had to smile.

And that was, really, the only sane reaction to the Giants' 8-5 victory over the Padres on Sunday afternoon, a nerve-racking but triumphant effort that padded their lead over the Dodgers to two games.

Unable to hold a three-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, the Giants had to rely on the burly Beck to imitate a gazelle and cover the plate on an attempted steal that could have put the Padres ahead.

"It's not a serene feeling to see your pitcher in that situation," said catcher Brian Johnson, who chased down Beck's errant first pitch to Chris Gomez and made a high toss that Beck clutched as if the division lead depended on it.

But if Beck was an unlikely Gold Glover, Stan Javier was an equally surprising batting hero in the ninth, lining a two-run triple down the right-field line against Trevor Hoffman after striking out once and grounding to short twice in his previous three at-bats.

"That's Giants baseball," Beck said after wasting a save opportunity but improving his record to 7-4. "Anything can happen--and does."

A little too often, maybe, for Baker. Still weak from an intestinal infection that sent him to a nearby hospital for treatment Saturday, Baker was glad he could watch the Dodger-Rockie game knowing no matter what they did, his team is still in control with six games left and a two-game lead.

"We make it exciting. Yesterday when I went to the hospital I was hoping I didn't have ulcers," Baker said. "It's not planned. But any way you can get them at this point, you'll take them."

The Giants borrowed from their frequently used stock of resiliency Sunday after the Padres took a 2-0 lead in the second inning. They pulled even in the fourth on Barry Bonds' second inside-the-park homer this season and third of his career--a catchable fly ball that Greg Vaughn lost in the cloudless blue sky above Qualcomm Stadium--and an RBI-single by Mark Lewis.

A three-run sixth, fueled by Jeff Kent's run-scoring single to center and Glenallen Hill's two-run double, seemed to put the Giants in control. But that would have been too easy, too boring.

"I've been here 2 1/2 months and this is how [unpredictable] it's been," Johnson said. "It's very stressful, but it's kind of fun."

It was more stressful than fun for Baker in the late innings.

Having gotten seven solid innings from starter Wilson Alvarez, Baker summoned left-hander Terry Mulholland to start the eighth. Quilvio Veras and Steve Finley greeted him with consecutive singles up the middle and Tony Gwynn followed with a double down the right-field line.

Baker brought in sinker-baller Julio Tavarez to face switch-hitter Ken Caminiti, who walked to load the bases. Tavarez got Vaughn to take a 93-mph fastball for the first out, then yielded to left-hander Rich Rodriguez. The Padres countered with Lee, who hit a chopper to third that Mueller turned into a force on Finley at home.

Beck then joined the bullpen parade. To Baker's dismay, Padre Manager Bruce Bochy sent up pinch hitter Mark Sweeney, a career .339 pinch-hitter. Without right-handed reliever Roberto Hernandez, who has an ailing shoulder, Baker had no option but to keep Beck in the game, and Sweeney trumped him by dumping Beck's first pitch into right field to score Gwynn and Caminiti and tie the score at 5-5. "It was a split-finger [fastball]. A nasty one too," Beck said. "He got just enough of it."

And Beck got enough of the plate to keep Lee from scoring the go-ahead run. When Beck's first pitch to Gomez eluded Johnson, Lee barreled home with a feet-first slide that upended Beck but didn't jar the ball loose. "I'm a pretty big boy, too. If I can stand in front of the plate, it's pretty much blocked," Beck said.

But nothing was going to stop the Giants on Sunday. They rallied again in the ninth, this time against Dario Veras (2-1), on a single by Johnson, a double by Darryl Hamilton and a triple by Javier. After Bonds was walked intentionally, Jeff Kent applied the final flourish with a run-scoring single up the middle.

For once, Beck pitched an uneventful final inning. Which was just as well for the Giants, who had as much excitement as they could bear.

"I'm so tired I don't even want to waste energy on watching the Dodgers," Kent said. "I'll probably wake up [today] and get the score then. The best thing is we control our own destiny."

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