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Padres Fall, but Gwynn Joins Chase

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the time of year Padre right fielder Tony Gwynn despises. It has happened each of the past six years, so you’d think he’d get used to this. But, if anything, the frustration only increases.

He can’t stand knowing that six weeks still remain in the season, and the Padres are all but mathematically eliminated from the National League West race, having lost Sunday, 3-2, to the Philadelphia Phillies.

When you trail the Cincinnati Reds by 12 games, and have two other teams in front of you with 43 games left to play, precious few team goals remain. Oh, it’d be nice, the Padres say, to finish in third place, maybe even second. They’d consider it an achievement in self-respect if they finished the season with a .500 record, considering they’re 56-63, and have only 17 home games remaining.

But realistically, the only race Padre fans know that’s still remains alive is the one for the National League batting title, which Gwynn has captured each of the past three years, and four times in his career.

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“You know, it’s so much easier to play when you’re in the hunt for a pennant,” Gwynn said. “Everyone has so much more fun. Winning is what it’s all about.

“But I go out in the outfield now, and I hear them saying, ‘Come on, Tony, get a hit. We want another batting title.’

“Hey, I’m trying, I’m trying, but it isn’t the same like it was in ’84.”

It was in 1984 when Gwynn won his first batting title, hitting .351 with a career-high 71 RBIs, helping the Padres run away with the division and go onto the World Series.

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But ever since that celebratory year, the final six weeks of a season have meant little to the Padres. Let’s see, at this time a year ago, they were 10 games out of first place. In 1988, they were 11 1/2 back . . . 13 1/2 back in 1987 . . . 13 back in 1986 . . . and eight back in 1985.

This is why the same question emerging each year at this time is not whether the Padres can make a run for the pennant, but whether Gwynn can win the batting title.

Gwynn has the opportunity of becoming the first National League player in 65 years to win four consecutive batting titles. Rogers Hornsby was the last to accomplish the feat in 1920-1925 for St. Louis when he won six in a row. Honus Wagner also won four consecutive titles (1906-1909) with Pittsburgh.

Now, Gwynn too has a chance for immortality, although he realizes if he doesn’t make a surge in a hurry, the batting race will pass him by. He trails Phillie outfielder Lenny Dykstra by 24 points, .344 to .319.

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The only hit Gwynn was able to obtain Sunday in front of the crowd of 22,627 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium was his ninth-inning bunt single. Replays showed that John Kruk’s throw beat him to the bag, and first-base umpire Mark Hirschbeck missed the call.

For a moment, it looked like it might be the call that would swing the game in the Padres’ direction. They suddenly had runners on first and second, no outs, Jack Clark at the plate, and Joe Carter on deck.

It took all of six pitches for Clark to hit a foul pop-up to Kruk at first base, and Carter to ground into a double play, ending the game, sending Padre starter Dennis Rasmussen, 8-12, to his eighth defeat in his last nine decisions.

Wasted was Rasmussen’s finest outing since June 26. He allowed just six hits and one earned run in seven innings--facing 14 batters before allowing a hit--but his throwing error in the seventh inning, followed by second baseman Roberto Alomar’s fielding error, proved to be too much to overcome.

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And games such as these have left the Padres in the mess they’re in, with Gwynn’s chase for the batting title serving as the only suspense.

The odds of Gwynn clearing off space on his mantel for another batting title this season appear as remote as Roseanne Barr bringing home a Grammy, but yet, this is Tony Gwynn.

Everyone figured he was doomed in 1988, batting .246 on July 2, but there he was in the final 73 games, hitting .367 to win the title. A year ago, he trailed Will Clark of San Francisco by four points, but there he was again, obtaining six hits in his last eight at-bats to win his third in a row.

Now, he finds himself with Dykstra sitting far ahead of him, and Willie McGee, Dave Magadan and Andre Dawson also in the way.

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So, why is everyone still pointing toward Gwynn, the man who just so happens to be batting .388 in his past 11 games?

“I think because of what I’ve done the past six years,” Gwynn said, “when people think of batting titles, they always think of me. I’m sure right now people are saying, ‘Where’s Tony at, where’s Tony.’ Then, it’ll be, ‘Here he comes, here he comes. Watch out for Tony.’

“There’s a lot of pressure on me because of that. It’s almost like people come to expect it, and if I don’t win the batting title, I had a bad year.

“But I don’t think that way at all. If anything, I’m thinking of 200 hits, because that’s what I shoot for every year. If I get 200 hits, I know I can be proud of the year I’ve had.”

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Gwynn just so happens to be on a pace to finish with 208 hits and a career-high 78 RBIs, but when you’ve won three consecutive batting titles, everything else tends to get lost in the shuffle.

“I can honestly say I don’t wake up every morning and grab the newspapers just to see where I am,” Gwynn said, “but if I get in the heat of it like I think I can, sure, I’ll go for it. I don’t think it’s out of reach, because I really believe .335 will win the thing this year.

“I think the pressure might get to Dykstra (who went two for 13 in the series), but for me and Willie (McGee), it’s not first and foremost on our mind. We’ve done it before, and we know we can do it again.”

Padre Notes

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Padre third baseman Bip Roberts left the game after the seventh inning because of a possible epididymitis, an injury to the coil above the testicles. Roberts sustained the injury in the fifth inning when Phillie third baseman Charlie Hayes slid into third, with his foot crashing into Roberts’ groin area. Roberts stayed in the game, but after two innings, he realized he was only hurting the team. “Oh, man, it just took my legs away right there,” Roberts said. “It gave me a stomach ache. I just don’t understand why a guy had to come in with his spikes up like that. I had surgery in that area in 1981, and it’s been super-sensitive there ever since. . . . I didn’t want to seem like a wimp asking to come out, but it never got any better.” . . . The Padres left 12 runners on base, and now have stranded 48 in the past five games. . . . ...First baseman Rob Nelson of the Padres’ triple-A club in Las Vegas was selected as the Pacific Coast League Player of the Week. He batted .500 (13 for 26) with two doubles, six homers and 16 RBIs in six games. . . . Padre starter Andy Benes celebrates his 23rd birthday today.


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