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Optimism Returning for Padres : Nelson’s Homer, Grant’s Pitching Spark 5-3 Victory

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Funny how this game of baseball works.

Just 14 weeks ago, the Padres were opening the season as the preseason pick to win the National League West title, just waiting for the word from the league office to start printing playoff tickets?

This was a team that had finished with a 67-48 record in 1988 under Jack McKeon as manager, added slugger Jack Clark and starter Bruce Hurst in the off-season, and left spring training with their best record (18-8) in history.

“I think we left spring training thinking we were going straight to the World Series,” Clark said.

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So who would have ever thought Sunday that with a 42-46 record, 9 1/2 games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants, the Padres would be acting almost giddy with their 5-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“But now, at least,” right fielder Tony Gwynn said, “we have reason for optimism. I’m not sure if we did before. I think we’re starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. It might be flickering, but it’s there.”

The victory--the Padres’ second in a row and sixth on the 12-game trip--leaves the Padres with the satisfaction that perhaps they really have something going, and the comfort of knowing that they’ll be playing their next 11 games at home, with only six games outside California until mid-August.

“I’m still optimistic we can come back,” McKeon said. “In fact, I’d be very surprised if we don’t make a run at this thing. I really think the guys have demonstrated that, ‘Hey, we’ve been frustrated long enough the way we’ve played. Let’s kick it in gear.’ . . .

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“It’s been very disappointing and embarrassing to me, and I think they’re embarrassed, too. No one expected this.”

Just what exactly did happen on the way from Yuma, Ariz., to San Diego, no one is quite sure.

Pick your favorite rationalization:

--The Padres were overconfident.

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--The Padres were overrated.

--The Padres were ill-prepared leaving spring training.

--The Padres depended too much on Jack Clark.

--The Padres could not cope with the pressure of being made a contender.

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--The Padres misjudged their talent.

--The Padres were too selfish.

“It’s crazy, we won the most games we’ve ever won this spring, and after the way we finished last year, the natural tendency was to think we could win it,” McKeon said. “But when the bell rang, I don’t know what happened. If you had that kind of feeling going into the season, you wonder why in the world you’d lose it during the season.

"(We) started out all right (winning 13 of the first 23 games), ran into a little adversity, and couldn’t cope with it. They couldn’t make the adjustments, the mental adjustments you’ve got to make in this game.

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“Then we started pressing. Worse, they started pressing in a selfish way. If they said, '(Forget) my batting average, I’m going to help the team,’ we’d be a whole lot better off than we are now.

“But until these last couple of days, I haven’t seen that.”

Ever since the team meeting called Saturday afternoon by veteran Tim Flannery, the Padres have shown symptoms of life. There was Ed Whitson shutting down the Pirates with Chris James belting a homer in a 2-0 victory Saturday night, and there was reliever Mark Grant and Rob Nelson performing an encore Sunday.

Grant had time to throw only 10 to 12 pitches in the bullpen when McKeon decided to yank starter Dennis Rasmussen out of the game in the second inning. When Grant caught his breath and looked around to survey the situation, there were two outs, runners on first and second, and a two-ball, no-strike count on cleanup hitter Bobby Bonilla.

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Having not entered a game this early all season, Grant complicated the situation by throwing a changeup for ball three. But swinging on a slider, Bonilla hit a sharp grounder to the right of the first-base bag that looked like one run, maybe two. Nelson dived, batted the ball down and flipped to Grant who just beat Bonilla to the bag.

“That was the play of the game, right there,” Grant said. “If he doesn’t make that play, we don’t win.”

The Padres scored an unearned run in the third inning on Garry Templeton’s groundout, and in the fourth, Nelson once again came to Grant’s rescue. Pirate starter Randy Kramer (3-5), falling behind three balls to Nelson, threw a fastball down the middle of the plate. Nelson, who was surprised as anyone in the crowd of 23,584 that he was being given the green light, swung away. The ball sailed into the right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 4-3 lead.

Grant (3-1), not about to relinquish the opportunity for a victory, pitched a career-long 6 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. He retired 20 of the 24 batters he faced and didn’t leave the game until surrendering a one-out, pinch-hit single to John Cangelosi in the ninth inning.

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Mark Davis was summoned, and three pitchers later, he had his 22nd save.

Grant’s performance simply was a continuance of his dominance at Three Rivers Stadium. This was the site of his first career major league victory, and perhaps the nostalgia of the event brings out the best in Grant. He now has allowed just one earned run in 24 career innings at Three Rivers Stadium for a 0.38 ERA.

“Hopefully, this well help us turn the corner,” Grant said. “We’re starting to play heads-up baseball now. Nothing flashy. Nothing spectacular. Just good fundamental baseball, and it’s paying off.”

Maybe the Padres have indeed learned their lesson in the first half. Perhaps they can put together the kind of second half that the Boston Red Sox put together last season when they were nine games back at the All-Star break.

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“The most important thing is not so much that we won, but just the way we’ve played the last two games,” said Gwynn, who had two hits to raise his league-leading batting average to .353. “Even if we had lost, it wouldn’t have mattered because of the way we played. We know now what it takes.

Padre Notes

Padre Manager Jack McKeon benched catcher Benito Santiago for the second game in a row and the third time in four games. He said he’ll decide during the All-Star break whether Mark Parent will remain in the starting lineup, or revert back to Santiago. In Santiago’s last start Friday, he complained about batting eighth in the lineup, and has not played since. “I don’t have any problems with Benny,” McKeon said. “If Benny has problems, it’s with himself. He’s one of 24 guys. I don’t run the team for him. I’ll do what I think is right for each particular day. I don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings; this is the big leagues. I happen to be the boss right now, and I’ll do what I think is right for the team.” . . . Tony Gwynn played with a painful bruised left heel, and when he limped back to the bench in the first inning, McKeon persuaded him to come out.


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