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Suddenly, It's First and Four for the Giants

September 23, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Dusty Baker says he doesn't believe in destiny. But the San Francisco Giants' manager does believe in his team, and that faith appears to be well-founded as the Giants continue a sometimes torturous but never dull march toward an unlikely National League West championship.

Former Dodger Stan Javier's run-scoring single in the eighth inning--his second tie-breaking hit in two games--sparked a five-run surge and propelled the Giants to an 11-5 victory over the San Diego Padres on Monday night before a crowd of 22,229 at Qualcomm Stadium, increasing their lead over the flailing Dodgers to 2 1/2 games.

"This is great," Javier said. "I can't wait for [tonight's] game [against Colorado]. [The Dodgers] got a little slump going and we've gotten hot. . . . We've been playing better the last two weeks than we did at the beginning of the month."

In winning for the fifth time in their last six games, the Giants reduced their magic number for clinching the division title to four with five games remaining. The Dodgers have six games left.

The Giants won three of four games against the Padres in this series and have gained 4 1/2 games on the Dodgers in the past seven days.

The Giants took a 5-1 lead in the third inning Monday on a three-run home run by former Angel J.T. Snow, which ended a four-for-44 slump for the switch-hitting first baseman.

But the Padres pulled even in a seventh-inning flurry capped by a two-run double by Ken Caminiti and a two-run single by pinch-hitter Steve Finley against reliever Roberto Hernandez.

The Giant bullpen's inability to hold the lead spoiled a solid 6 1/3-inning performance by starter Kirk Rueter, who matched his career high with eight strikeouts. The only consolation in that inning was that the Giants ended it by getting the potential go-ahead run at the plate. Finley had stolen second and then tried to score when third baseman Bill Mueller threw wide to first on Chris Jones' grounder to the left side. Snow alertly threw to catcher Brian Johnson, who withstood Finley's attempt to knock the ball loose.

That proved crucial in the top of the eighth. Barry Bonds led off with a walk and went to second on Snow's single to left. Javier, hitting for Glenallen Hill, singled to right to score Bonds and move Snow to third. Jose Vizcaino, hitless in three previous at-bats, doubled to center to score Snow. Johnson walked and Darryl Hamilton followed with a bases-loaded double into the left-field corner.

"It's pretty amazing," Snow said of the Giants' never-say-die attitude. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like this. After they got those runs in the seventh, we just said, 'OK, let's go.' There was no panic."

Bonds homered in the ninth for the Giants' final run, his fifth homer in six games and the 25th of his career in this ballpark.

The Padre fans did have some consolation: right fielder Tony Gwynn went four for five to raise his league-leading batting average to .373 and assume 38th place on the career hits list with 2,777.

The Giants took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Hill's home run, his 12th of the season but his first since Aug. 25. The Padres matched that with a leadoff home run by Greg Vaughn in the bottom of the inning.

A four-run fourth put the Giants ahead, 5-1. Darryl Hamilton reached on an infield hit and advanced to second on Bill Mueller's single to center. Hamilton tagged and went to third on Bonds' fly to center and scored when Jeff Kent grounded a single just past short.

That brought up Snow, who fell behind in the count 0-and-2 before slamming the next pitch into the right-field seats.

The bullpen's failure to protect that lead emphasized the perils of Baker's job and how diligently he has worked to keep his pitching staff together.

Baker had to throw Terry Mulholland into the fifth spot in the rotation after Mark Gardner left the team to care for his ailing wife, but Baker doesn't want to use Mulholland against the Rockies in Denver tonight because Mulholland's career earned-run average against them before this season was 5.04. Instead, veteran right-hander Danny Darwin will start on three days' rest.

Baker also has a problem in choosing a starter for Wednesday afternoon's game at Coors Field. Shawn Estes, the Giants' top winner at 18-5, lasted only 1 2/3 innings and threw 40 pitches against the Padres on Saturday and normally would be available Wednesday. However, he has been bothered by tightness in his rhomboid muscle, beneath his left shoulder, and he's awaiting clearance from the Giants' training staff before he pitches again.

There's no question, though, he'd like to be out there Wednesday. "This is gut-check time," he said. "A lot of it is a mental game now."

Baker was playing a mental game, too, trying to figure how often Estes could pitch in the playoffs if the Giant ace takes a few extra days off. Of course, Baker is reluctant to think that far ahead.

"First, we gotta get there," Baker said. "The [union] player rep told me somebody wanted to know when we'd have our playoff shares meeting. I don't want no shares meeting yet. I'm going to wait as long as I can wait on stuff like that."

If Estes can't start Wednesday, Baker said he would give the assignment to either Terry Mulholland or Pat Rapp.

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