It was a year ago at this time, probably to the day, Andy Benes figures, when he was in Seoul, Korea, preparing for the Olympics.
He was thousands of miles away from home, and it felt like millions. Not a day went by when Benes wasn’t homesick, longing for his friends and family back home in Evansville, Ind.
Oh, well, he figured, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Just how many people in the world can say that they’ve participated in the Olympics?
“It was the greatest thrill I’ve ever had,” Benes said. “I didn’t think anything could top that.”
Benes stopped, his eyes dancing across the Padres’ clubhouse. “I was wrong.
“Man, was I wrong.”
Benes pitched the finest game of his professional career for seven innings, and just when he thought his eight-inning mistake was going to cost his team a valuable victory, along came Benito Santiago to the rescue.
Santiago, whose job was to advance Joey Cora to second base for the tying run, instead slammed a two-run homer into the left-field seats, giving the Padres a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Braves.
It was the Padres’ 17th victory in their past 20 games, putting them within 4 1/2 games of the division-leading San Francisco Giants, pending the Giants’ fate Wednesday night. That’s with 16 games remaining, including six against the Giants. It’s the closest the Padres have been to first place this late in a season, excluding the 1984 season when they won the pennant.
Yes, the Padres are in an honest-to-goodness pennant race, although the crowd of 13,400 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium was more representative of a garage sale than a pennant race.
“This streak is just unbelievable, isn’t it?” said outfielder Tony Gwynn, who went two for three. “You can’t ask much more of a club.
“But we’re still five games out. That’s the killer. We might have to play better than that. It’s frustrating, but that’s what the game’s all about.”
It’s also what dreams are made of.
This was a team that was shellacked, 12-3, on Aug. 8, the day Benes was called up to the big leagues. It left the Padres with a 56-57 record, eight games behind the Giants, and seven behind the Houston Astros. They staggered about for the next two weeks, dropping two more games in the standings, and when Benes took the mound Aug. 23 against Philadelphia, the Padres were a whopping 10 games behind the Giants.
Then Benes won his first major league game, 7-3, and something strange started to happen.
The Padres started winning.
They have yet to stop, compiling the great winning streak in the franchise’s 21-year history.
“A lot of times, you just have to ride the wave and let the wave take you to where it’s going,” shortstop Garry Templeton said. “Hopefully, it will take us to where San Francisco is.”
Certainly without Benes, that wave would have crashed along the shores of La Jolla by now.
“That’s the question you keep asking yourself,” Gwynn said. “‘Why did it take so long?’ I guess only the Lord has the answer to that. I sure haven’t been able to figure it out.
“But I know where we’d be without him. We’d be packing our bags for a long vacation.”
No starting pitcher is more responsible for the Padres’ streak than Benes. He’s 4-0 during this 17-3 run, with a 2.88 earned-run average. The only man on the pitching staff who has contributed more is Mark Davis, Wednesday’s winning pitcher.
Benes, striking out a career-high nine batters, opened the eighth inning in a 1-1 game by walking leadoff hitter Jeff Wetherby. Oddibe McDowell sacrificed pinch-runner Ron Gant to second. Jeff Treadway popped to Templeton.
With two outs, Benes threw a slider with his first pitch to Lonnie Smith. Smith got in front of it, hit it off the end of his bat, and broke his bat.
No matter. The ball dropped in shallow left field, and Gant scored the go-ahead run. Dale Murphy followed with a double into the left-field corner, moving Smith to third, and leaving the Padres on the brink of disaster.
Taking no chances, McKeon called for his bullpen ace, Davis. Even though the Padres were trailing, Davis was the man McKeon wanted to slam the door.
Davis responded by getting Geronimo Berroa to ground out, setting up Santiago’s dramatics in the bottom of the eighth.
Templeton, whose fifth-inning homer tied the score, opened the eighth with a walk off reliever Dwayne Henry.
With Santiago stepping to the plate, the plan was simple. McKeon wanted him to bunt pinch-runner Cora to second, and allow Darrin Jackson or Mike Pagliarulo to drive him in. Well, Santiago fouled the first pitch back. He fouled off the next down the first-base line.
McKeon, shrugging his shoulders, told him he had no choice now but to hit away, and hope for the best.
“I was talking to (Bruce) Hurst in the dugout,” McKeon said, “and I told him, ‘How many times you see a guy screw up a bunt, and hit one out.”
The words barely came out of McKeon’s mouth when Santiago sent Henry’s inside fastball screaming into the left-field seats.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew the ball was gone,” Santiago said. “It’s funny, because I was feeling badabout myself because I didn’t do my job.”
Davis breezed through the ninth, assuring the victory.
The Padres poured onto the field, made the congratulations brief, and then scurried back into the clubhouse to watch the end of the Giants-Cincinnati Reds game.
After the Padres’ 6-5 victory Tuesday night when fans stayed around watching the Giants’ game on the scoreboard going down in defeat, Padre pitcher Dennis Rasmussen went to the parking lot to meet his wife.
“We were supposed to go out and have dinner together,” Rasmussen explained. “We had someone watching the kids, and we were going to have a nice night out.”
Well, for 25 minutes Rasmussen stood alone underneath a light post, wondering where his wife was. Finally, she emerged from the stadium, right along with the rest of the celebrant mob from the stadium.
“Sharon told me she knew I was probably waiting, but she just couldn’t leave until the Giants’ game was over,” Rasmussen said. “It was probably the first I had to wait for her at the end of a game, instead of her waiting for me. She said it was a nice change.”
The only thing that could go better for the Padres now is if they reached a contractual agreement with Davis, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Needing just one more save to reach 40, Davis has emerged as a Cy Young Award candidate, and a very interesting commodity in the market.
Allan Hendricks, Davis’ agent, was in town Wednesday and met with Padre General Manager Tony Siegle. Although the Padres are no closer to signing Davis, Siegle came away optimistic.
“No parameters were set; no offers were made,” Siegle said. “But what we did was to agree that we would meet as soon as the season ends, if not before.
“Obviously, we’d like to get it settled right now, but they want to wait with Mark pitching so well, and I can respect that. It’s going to be a hard negotiation. It’s going to be a very hard negotiation, but we don’t expect any acrimonious situation, not at all.”
Backup catcher Mark Parent, who has not started since going two for three Aug. 27 with a season-high four RBIs, said on Wednesday that he understands the situation, but wishes someone would talk to him about it. “He (Padre Manager Jack McKeon) basically is telling me he doesn’t think I can help us win,” Parent said, “but I’m done losing sleep over it. I’ve always been a team ballplayer. I’ve never been one to play for stats. It’s just that I’d like to play a little bit, you know. I think Jack understands that. No one should be happy about sitting.” McKeon said he understands Parent’s plight, but for now Parent must be patient. “He’s going to be my backup next year, I told him that,” McKeon said. “It’s just that right now, I’ve got Benny (Santiago) and a talented kid (Sandy Alomar Jr.) who deserves to play once in a while, too. Parent’s a valuable player for us. If I didn’t think that, he wouldn’t be around.” . . . The Padre players provided Tim Flannery a 4-foot oil painting of himself before Wednesday’s game, bringing Flannery to tears. “I never expected anything like this,” he said. They really choked me up.” . . . Padre pitching coach Pat Dobson, who will manage the Fort Myers, Fla., team in the new 35-and-older league this winter, said bullpen coach Denny Sommers probably will join him. Dobson also is hoping Terry Crowley will be on the staff as a player-coach. . . . McKeon said the organization toyed with the idea of bringing up their minor-league pitcher of the year, Rafael Valdez, for the pennant stretch. Valdez, 22, was 10-5 with a 2.26 ERA in 26 starts at single-A Riverside and 5-0 with a 1.94 ERA in six starts at double-A Wichita. “We just didn’t think it was right to call up the kid and throw him right in the middle of this,” McKeon said. . . . Padre pinch-hitter Carmelo Martinez, who injured his back taking infield practice on Sunday, has hit off a tee the past two days. He still is unable to take batting practice, however, and hopes to be available for pinch-hitting duties during the Padres’ three-game series, beginning Friday, against the division-leading San Francisco Giants.
* DISTEL COLUMN: Padre fans could use a wake-up call. Story, Page 11A.