Oh those troubled Padres. Those tired, road-weary Padres. Nothing like coming home after a three-city Eastern swing to face the just-as-struggling Atlanta Braves and make even the worst wounds heal.
The Padres won their second game in a row against the Braves, 6-5, Saturday night in front of 28,487 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. After starting this 13-game homestand a half-game behind the Braves in last place in the National League West, they are now 1 1/2 games in front of the Braves in fifth.
What a tonic these Braves (17-33) have been, especially to those Padres (20-33) who need it most. And of all who need a lift, it would be hard to find three better causes than players who earned rewards this night.
For Tony Gwynn, the National League batting champion who has nursed a series of nagging injuries since spring training and entered the game batting .258, there was a game-winning home run in the fourth.
For Ed Whitson, the opening day starter who has lately fallen on tough times, there were 3 innings of one-hit pitching in his first relief appearance of the season. Enough to break a four-game losing streak.
For Lance McCullers, the designated stopper who had given up home runs in each of his past three outings, there were two closing shutout innings that gave him his first save since May 14 against Montreal.
“When you’re the short man, there’s a lot of pressure all the time,” said McCullers, who settled down after singles by the first two batters he faced. “When you get beat on a home run, it’s hard to overlook that. You just have to go out and try again. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I held nothing back. I just threw it hard.
“It’s been a long time between saves. This one came at a great time.”
The timing was perfect for Whitson, too. Whitson, who had lost five of his past six starts, had been scheduled to start today, but Manager Jack McKeon placed him in the bullpen for the weekend in hopes that he could use the opportunity to regain his early season form.
“That’s exactly the situation we wanted to use him” McKeon said. “And he pitched great. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
McKeon said he still intended to start Whitson Tuesday against the Reds.
Whitson said he benefited from the relief role.
"(This) gives you a foot forward to where you’re looking forward to your next start. I try not to be too excited. . . . But anytime you win, it’s a step in your favor.”
It was Gwynn’s leadoff homer to right in the fourth off reliever Charlie Puleo that gave Whitson the victory. It was Gwynn’s second of the season and his first since April 9 in San Francisco.
“It was a fastball up, and I just got on top of it,” Gwynn said. “That’s usually a pretty good pitch for a pitcher to throw. Usually I don’t hit it that well. But I was quick enough to get it.”
The combined resurgence by Gwynn, McCullers and Whitson was more than enough to cover up the worst start of the season by Jimmy Jones and an offense that still left 10 runners on base.
The Padres led, 5-2, after three innings, but they could have had much more, leaving the bases loaded in the first and third innings. As it was, they chased Pete Smith, the Braves starter, with just one out in the third.
Smith, a 22-year-old right-hander who came to the Braves as part of the 1985 deal that sent Cy Young winner Steve Bedrosian to Philadelphia, has struggled in the major leagues since beating the Padres, 4-2, in his debut Sept. 8. He has won only one of his 16 starts since, 4-1 against Cincinnati April 24.
Smith never got his rhythm against the Padres. He yielded single runs in the first and second before completely faltering in the third. The big hit was a two-run, opposite-field homer to left by John Kruk. After a single by Benito Santiago and a walk to Chris Brown, Smith was replaced by Puleo (0-2).
Smith, charged with 5 runs (4 earned), 5 hits and 4 walks in his 2 innings, probably would have been headed toward his sixth loss in seven decisions had it not been that Padre starter Jimmy Jones was having troubles of his own.
Jones, whose 2.96 ERA entering the game was lowest among Padres starters, lasted just one more inning than Smith. He gave up two unearned runs in second and, after retiring Atlanta in order in third, was dispatched by the Braves in the fourth when he allowed five of the first six batters to reach base.
Ron Gant’s RBI single that scored the third run of the inning, tying the game at 5-5, was what sent Jones to his earliest exit of the season.
Jones was replaced by Whitson, who entered with one out and runners on first and second but escaped without allowing a run. After Puleo advanced the runners on a sacrifice bunt and Albert Hall walked to load the basses, Whitson ended the inning by getting Ken Oberkfell to ground out to short.
Whitson retired eight Braves in order before allowing his first hit--a one-out double by Hall in the seventh. He was removed for pinch-hitter Tim Flannery to lead off the seventh.
His 3 innings of one-hit, one-walk, two-strike out relief--with the help of Gwynn’s timely homer--was enough to earn him his first victory since May 14 against Montreal.
“Coming in like that makes you concentrate,” Whitson said. “I’ve really been feeling pretty good. I’ve just had bad pitch location.”
The once-tepid Padre hitters again demonstrated that their bats have gained some sting since McKeon took over for Larry Bowa May 28. After scoring an average of 2.7 runs per game under Bowa, the Padres have scored 38 runs in their first seven games under McKeon.
The Padres scored in each of the first four innings, keyed by Gwynn’s RBI single in the first and the homer in the fourth.
Atlanta’s only lead came in the second when the Braves scored two unearned runs after shortstop Garry Templeton allowed Dale Murphy’s ground ball to slip through his legs for an error to open the inning.
The Braves quickly gave the lead away in the bottom of the second on an unearned run of their own that started curiously enough when Templeton reached first as Smith mishandled his slow ground ball down the first-base line. Jones bunted Templeton to second, and after Marvell Wynne flied out to left for the second time, Roberto Alomar singled Templeton home to tie it at 2-2.
A chance for more runs, however, was wiped out when Alomar, who moved to second on the throw to the plate, was thrown out by catcher Bruce Benedict trying to steal third with Gwynn batting.
“We left some guys on, but we won,” McKeon said. “The guys are playing loose. They want to win, and I think we will.”