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Pirates Play Like Champs : Baseball: Bonds’ two-run homer in the sixth inning and Slaught’s long ball in the 12th propel NL East leaders past Padres, 3-2.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Gwynn didn’t feel much like talking Saturday. Really, there was little to say. His left knee was throbbing, and his heart was aching.

Gwynn, who for the first half of the season looked like an MVP candidate and was on pace of putting up career highs in several offensive categories, now is trying to cope with the realization that the remainder of his season is in jeopardy.

He could do nothing but sit on the bench with his bandaged knee and watch Saturday as the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Padres, 3-2 in 12 innings, in front of 16,170 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

Despite the offensive exploits of Gwynn’s substitute, Jerald Clark, Pirate catcher Don Slaught was the hero of the night with his 12th-inning homer off reliever Jose Melendez (6-4). It was Slaught’s first home run in 15 months, dating back to May 27, 1990.

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The Pirates’ victory enabled them to pad their National League East lead to a season-high eight games over the St. Louis Cardinals. It is the defending East champions’ largest lead in the division race since Sept. 23, 1975.

If the Pirates continue at their current pace, the Cardinals would have to go 31-3 to win the division.

While the Pirates’ attention is focused on what’s left of the division race, and then the playoffs, the Padres’ concern is with Gwynn, their four-time batting champion.

For the past three weeks Gwynn has been playing with meniscus cartilage damage in his left knee but never revealed that as the source of his pain. It was always something else, he said. He had shin splints. He had a sprained ankle. The knee was an afterthought.

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“I always thought I could keep playing,” Gwynn said softly, “but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t run around the outfield like I wanted to. I didn’t run the bases the way I wanted to. And I certainly wasn’t hitting the way I wanted to (.179 the past 11 games).

“I came to a point, basically, where I was asking myself whether I was hurting the ballclub more than I was helping it.”

Gwynn left the game Friday night, and after an examination Saturday, received a cortisone shot and had fluid drained from his knee. He’ll be out until at least Thursday, and perhaps longer. Surgery still remains a possibility.

“I’ll try to do everything I can to finish the season,” Gwynn said. “I played too hard, too long. I don’t want to bail out.

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“But I also have to consider, what’s more important, the next four weeks or the next five years?

“I’m going to do the right thing, but right now, I don’t know what the right thing is.”

The Padres certainly have no plans to coerce him into playing. Sure, their record likely suffer without him--in his absence Saturday, only three players in the lineup were in their opening-day positions. But after a season in which the Padres will have used a franchise-record 48 players with today’s scheduled call-ups, the Padres are getting used to this short-handed business.

“I’m surprised our trainers haven’t quit after all the abuse we’ve put him through,” said Padre starter Ed Whitson, one of 11 different players who have been on the disabled list this season.

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The Padres’ primary source of offense was Clark, who lost his starting left-field job a week ago. He started in place of Gwynn in right field, and went two for four with a two-run homer, his 10th, in the third inning. It was Clark’s first home run since July 19--spanning 107 at-bats--and his first two-hit game since Aug. 5.

But the Padres did not get a hit after the fifth inning.

Still, Clark’s homer looked as if it might be enough for starter Greg Harris, who had allowed only three hits through five innings. He retired the first two batters in the sixth before yielding a single to Bobby Bonilla.

That brought up Barry Bonds, the man who so badly wants to play in San Diego. When he becomes a free agent after the 1992 season, he said the Padres will be the first team he contacts.

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While Bonds still is wearing a different uniform, however, the Padres can only hope that one day they’ll figure out a way to pitch him during his visits to San Diego.

Bonds, on a 2-and-1 count, sent Harris’ fastball soaring over the center-field wall. He simply stood at home plate and admired the ball clearing the wall. Just like that, he raised his career batting average to .439 with eight homers at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

“This is where I want to play,” Bonds said. “I like being home, and I’m home here. I always play well here.”

Bonds, who’s vying to become the first player since Dale Murphy to win back-to-back MVP awards, figures to only improve the rest of the season. After hitting .170 the the first month of the season, Bonds is hitting .333 the past 95 games, raising his batting average to .294. The Pirates also found someone to protect to him in the lineup--on Friday night, General Manager Larry Doughty acquired third baseman Steve Buechele from the Texas Rangers.

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“This helps us a lot more than people think,” Bonilla said. “It shocked a lot of people. You have to tip your hat to Mr. Doughty. He wants to win. He showed all of us that.”

Said Pirate outfielder Cecil Espy: “That just about solidifies things for us. It don’t see too many weaknesses. I think we’re going to be just fine.”

Buechele was the third baseman the Padres coveted during the season but never could obtain. Now they can only hope the Pirates don’t sign Buechele, and he becomes available on the free-agent market.

“That was a great trade for them,” Gwynn said. “They were strong anyway, but that just makes them that much stronger. It’s hard to believe they got a guy like that.”

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Perhaps next year, the Padres will find themselves in a similar situation, where they too can make last-minute trades to bolster their playoff hopes. Maybe one day they’ll even be more than a spoiler in September.

“I’ve got to believe,” Padre Manager Greg Riddoch said, “things will get better.”


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