The Padres continue their flirtatious ways. They tease. They tantalize. And just when they're on the verge of seducing the public into believing they're the real thing, another defeat comes rolling along.
The Padres, trying to convince anyone who will listen that they're in a pennant race, faltered once again Friday in their bid to reach .500, losing 3-2 to the Atlanta Braves in front of 19,049 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
Although the Padres (57-59) still haven't been at .500 since June 29, they miraculously are only 6 1/2 games behind the division-leading Dodgers, who are doing their best imitation of the 1978 Boston Red Sox.
"I'm not sure any of us thought this would happen," Padre right fielder Tony Gwynn said. "At the All-Star break, it just didn't seem like the Dodgers would fall apart. But the pack has come back to us, and we're taking advantage of it."
Since the All-Star break, the Dodgers were 13-21, pending the outcome of Friday's game against Houston. Atlanta is 23-12, best in the National League West, and the Padres are 17-16, third in the division.
Perhaps this was why Padre infielder Tim Teufel looked around the clubhouse Friday, glanced at the young name tags above the lockers and had a look of amazement.
"You know something," he said, "I'm not sure if a lot of guys in here realize we're in a pennant race. Some of them might be too young to know.
"But they're sure about to find out."
The Padres, who have spent most of the year experimenting at different positions, calling up kids from the minor leagues and pondering the future of their manager, have a chance to contend.
But it's as if the San Diego community has yet to realize what is transpiring. The Padres have gone six consecutive games without drawing even 20,000 fans. And the only reason a crowd of 40,000 is expected tonight is because of an All-Star Cap Night promotion.
"I don't think it's really the topic of conversation in town," Teufel said. "It's like, 'San Diego's in a pennant race?'
" 'Which San Diego team?' "
Perhaps fans have difficulty fathoming the Padres making up 6 1/2 games in the standings, particularly since they have to climb over three teams. Perhaps they believe this team doesn't have enough talent. Perhaps the Padres will prove them wrong.
After all, this is the closest the Padres have been to first place on this date since 1984, the year they won the National League pennant.
"I think the next seven to 10 days will determine whether we'll be in a pennant race the rest of the way," Teufel said, "or fall out of it. These are awfully big games for us.
"But to me, for the first time, the team seems to jelling together, especially the offense. We've already shown the signs of winning the close ones.
"I've been scoreboard watching every night, seeing what's going on, and it's a lot of fun. The Dodgers have let everybody back into this thing, and while they've sprung a leak, everybody's creeping in.
"It's so nice to be in a pennant race again, because I know if I was still in New York, I wouldn't be in one."
On Friday, the Padres blew an opportunity to move into third place for the first time since June 24, and the man they ignored in the free-agent market was responsible. Third baseman Terry Pendleton, who wanted to become a Padre but was told there was no interest, hit a two-run, 400-foot homer off Ricky Bones into the right-field seats in the sixth inning that gave the Braves a 3-1 lead in which they never relinquished.
The Padres, whose only run was a fourth-inning homer by Fred McGriff, closed to within 3-2 in the seventh inning on the strangest plays of the season. Jack Howell led off by hitting what appeared to be a double into the left-field corner, with the ball bouncing underneath a metal folding chair in the Padre bullpen.
Atlanta left fielder Lonnie Smith immediately raised his arms above his head, motioning to the umpires that the ball was unreachable, waiting for a ground-rule double signal. There never was a response.
Howell, who has been with the Padres less than a month, didn't know the ground rules, either. He rounded second and stopped. Padre third base coach Bruce Kimm frantically waved his arms, motioning Howell to keep running. Howell started, stopped and then trotted around to home.
Not until several minutes later did third-base umpire Charlie Williams go into left field to see that the ball was not stuck into the stadium wall. He ruled a home run.
"I've never seen anything like it," Padre Manager Greg Riddoch said.
The Padres never hit another ball into left field until two outs in the ninth when pinch-hitter Kevin Ward slammed a line drive to the wall. Smith, however, leaped and snared the ball, ending the game.
The Padres probably should have known it might be one of those nights when second baseman Bip Roberts led off the game with a double into left field. He was picked off second and, after running off the field, collapsed by the bat rack. He sustained a twisted left knee and left the clubhouse on a golf cart.
Despite the defeat, the Padres still remain alive in the race, after being 10 1/2 games out of first place only two weeks ago. They're talking like they can still win this thing, particularly if their pitching can thrive the last six weeks. They are 43-13 this season when limiting the opposition to three or fewer runs.
Since the Break
Records for National League West teams since the All-Star break. (Does not include result of Friday's Dodger-Houston game). Team: W-L Atlanta: 23-12 San Francisco: 22-12 Padres: 17-16 Houston: 15-18 Dodgers: 13-21 Cincinnati: 11-23