Santiago's Block Helps Padres Tackle the Mets : Baseball: Play at home protects lead for Lefferts, who wins his 12th game, 2-0.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Padre catcher Benito Santiago loves this city. He doesn't see the graffiti in the streets. He doesn't smell the stench in the subways. He ignores the city's problems.

"I love New York," Santiago said Saturday night after the Padres' 2-0 victory over the Mets. "These people here, they appreciate me. I love them, and they love me back.

"What do you think, they could use me, no?"

Yes.

The Mets might remember Santiago for a long time after Saturday night. Who knows, instead of waiting for free agency, they might be tempted to acquire Santiago now for the stretch run in the National League East.

"I've always liked it here," Santiago said. "The fans appreciate me here so much. They know the game so much more. I'd like to stay in San Diego, but if the Padres don't keep me here, maybe it's a good chance I'll come here and play.

"I walk through the airport, I go to restaurants, and everyone says, 'Stay here. Stay here.' "

In a game during which Padre starter Craig Lefferts pitched seven shutout innings, center fielder Darrin Jackson scored both runs and Randy Myers pitched a 1-2-3 inning, Santiago's play in the seventh inning had everyone talking.

"It was the play of the game," said Jackson, who had a homer and a triple, "it's that simple. If Benny doesn't make that play, we lose that one."

The Padres had a 1-0 lead with two outs in the seventh inning. Pinch-hitter Chico Walker, batting with rookie catcher Todd Hundley on second base and Willie Randolph on first, laced a single past shortstop Tony Fernandez into left field.

"I thought the game was tied, right there," said Lefferts (12-6). "I didn't think we even had a shot at him because he didn't hit it that hard, and with the grass, well, I thought (Hundley would) score for sure."

Left fielder Jerald Clark charged the ball. Hundley rounded third. And Clark threw a perfect one-hop strike toward the right side of the plate.

Santiago stood there, and the crowd of 31,392 at Shea Stadium grew momentarily silent.

Hundley ignored the plate, raised his arms and bowled into Santiago.

The force of the collision knocked Santiago backward to the ground. He rolled to the side, lifted his glove in the air and showed the ball to umpire Frank Pulli.

Out!

"Forget my throw, that took guts what Benny did," Clark said. "I mean, Benny knew what was coming and he just stood there and took it like a man. He showed me a lot there.

"I was scared, really, because I didn't know if he hung onto the ball. I saw dirt flying all over the place, and I thought maybe the ball came loose. Then I saw the umpire say, 'Out.' "

Said third baseman Gary Sheffield: "That play inspired us right there. Once that play was made, there was no way we were going to lose."

The Padres, who ended their scoreless string at 22 innings, prevented the Mets (48-49) from gaining on the reeling Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the 12th time this season the Mets have been shut out, their most since 1980.

The Padres' euphoria, however, was tempered with the news of the Atlanta Braves' 13th consecutive victory. The Padres (52-46) remain in the third place, seven games behind the Braves and five games in back of the Cincinnati Reds.

Still, the frustration belonged to the Mets. Should they have used a pinch-runner for Hundley? Would Hundley have scored if he slid instead of trying to take out Santiago?

"I think if he had slid," Padre Manager Greg Riddoch said, "he would have been safe."

Said Lefferts: "I was standing right behind Benny, and there's no way. He was blocking the plate real good."

Said Santiago: "All I know is that I got hit real hard. Man, did he hit me. But in that situation, he's got to go after me and hope I drop the ball. I don't get mad; it was a good job in his part."

Certainly, no one was more appreciative of the Padres' defense than Lefferts. He yielded only six hits, and for the first time this season did not allow a run in his outing.

"You saw the plays behind me," Lefferts said.

Indeed, while the collision at home was the play of the game, Sheffield made three dazzling plays--a leaping grab of Bobby Bonilla's line drive in the second, a bare-handed play on Pat Howell's bunt in the fourth and a spin-and-throw play to his left on Eddie Murray's grounder in the seventh.

"It was the best defensive game I've ever had, by far," Sheffield said. "It was just one of those games where I just felt so confident. I felt nothing was going to get past us on the left side of the infield tonight."

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