For All . . . or Nothing?
In what has emerged as baseball’s greatest nightmare, the Dodgers and San Diego Padres will play today for the National League West championship in a game that means little more than pride.
The Dodgers, after losing again Saturday afternoon, 4-2, to the Padres, dropped into a first-place tie in the NL West in front of a sellout crowd of 52,977 at Dodger Stadium.
This will be the first time since 1908 that two National League teams entered the final game of the season tied with one another and played for the right to advance to the playoffs. That year the Chicago Cubs defeated the New York Giants and advanced to the World Series.
Of course, there was no wild card team back in those days.
Now, what is supposed to be the ultimate showdown game has turned into little more than a glorified spring-training game.
With the Padres clinching their first playoff berth since 1984 with their victory, and the Dodgers already guaranteed a playoff spot, the game has been reduced to a tournament seeding.
The winner of today’s game will be crowned NL West champion and open the playoffs Tuesday against the St. Louis Cardinals in a best-of-five series. The loser will be the wild-card entrant and will open the playoffs Wednesday at home against the Atlanta Braves.
“You just knew when they invented the wild card that something weird would come up,” Dodger pitcher Tom Candiotti said, “and here it is. This is as weird as you can get.”
Just how important is today’s game to the Dodgers and Padres?
Well, the Dodgers plan to start their ace Ramon Martinez . . . but have him pitch no more than a couple of innings. Candiotti and Pedro Astacio will also pitch a few innings. And catcher Mike Piazza is planning to take the day off--although he may catch an inning or two.
The Padres will start Bob Tewksbury, the same guy they kicked out of the starting rotation a week ago instead of permitting him to pitch against the Dodgers. Yet, now that they are playing in a game that could bring them their first division title since 1984, they have turned to Tewksbury.
“I guess whoever wins on the field [today],” Piazza said, “there will be two champagne parties at the same time. It’s probably the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in sports.
“Everybody was saying the wild card was such a great idea down the stretch, but I guess it didn’t turn out to be such a good idea after all. I guess there’s going to be a whole lot of upset people, but what are you going to do?
“I told Cammy [Padre third baseman Ken Caminiti] before the game that they should forfeit [Saturday’s game], we’ll forfeit Sunday’s game, and we can have three days off. He looked at me like, ‘You’re twisted, man.’
“But look at what happened. I could have been at the beach today.”
Does today’s game have any more significance than a Freeway Series game against the Angels?
“I don’t know,” Piazza shrugged. “I’m confused. I mean, what does it mean? Maybe the winner can get a bowl of fruit or something.”
The Dodgers and Padres, deadlocked with 90-71 records, say there still is a matter or pride involved. They both want to win the division. Yet, there also are several players on each team who believe it is a greater advantage to play the Braves in the first round rather than face their pitching staff in a best-of-seven series in the second round.
And no matter who wins the NL West, if the Braves win the first round, they will have the home-field advantage in the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s a little strange,” said Dodger reliever Mark Guthrie, who gave up a game-winning, two-run single to Tony Gwynn in the eighth inning. “You play all year to win the division. It comes down to the final game. And the last game doesn’t matter.
“Believe me, winning the first round of the playoffs is more important than winning [today’s] game. When we lost the first three games [last season] with Cincinnati, everybody forgot we won the division.
“No one will remember who won the division after the first round.”
The Dodgers hate the idea that they have lost three consecutive games to put themselves in this predicament.
They lost to the hapless San Francisco Giants on Thursday, needing to win only one of their final three games against the Padres, but now are on the verge of being swept.
The Dodgers, behind starter Hideo Nomo, maintained a 2-0 lead until the sixth inning. Steve Finley greeted him with a leadoff homer. Caminiti and Wally Joyner followed with singles, and Chris Gomez hit a run-scoring double, tying the score, 2-2. Nomo got out of the jam by retiring Brian Johnson on a popup and striking out Jody Reed and pinch-hitter Scott Livingstone.
The Dodgers no longer could contain the Padres in the eighth. Jody Reed hit a two-out single off reliever Darren Dreifort. Pinch-hitter Greg Vaughn followed with an infield single. Rickey Henderson drew a full-count walk.
That brought up Gwynn, the lone player remaining from the Padres’ lone championship team in 1984. Dodger Manager Bill Russell summoned Guthrie, who had the dubious task of facing the six-time batting champion.
“This guy’s the best hitter in the game,” Guthrie said, “and he has an unparalleled knowledge of the strike zone. You can’t pitch him one way.”
Gwynn slapped a 2-1 pitch past shortstop Greg Gagne into left field, scoring Reed and Vaughn, providing the Padres with their biggest victory since Game 5 of the 1984 playoffs.
“What I wanted to do was jump up and down and act like an idiot,” Gwynn said, “but I had to calm myself. I can’t tell you how good it felt. We’re going to the playoffs. It’s been a such long time, and now we’re finally going.”
The Dodgers tried to rally in the ninth. Eric Karros hit a leadoff double off Trevor Hoffman. Raul Mondesi and Tim Wallach struck out, pinch-hitter Billy Ashley walked, but Hoffman struck out pinch-hitter Dave Hansen to end the game.
The Padres celebrated on the field, but once inside the clubhouse, there was no champagne dousing. The celebration consisted of sitting around with a few cans of beer.
“We’ll bring out the champagne if we win the division,” Gwynn said. “If we don’t win it, we won’t have any. That’s the way it should be, I think.
“It’s too weird to figure out how we’re supposed to be feeling.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
THE NL WEST STRETCH DRIVE
* San Diego 4, Dodgers 2
* San Diego (Tewksbury 10-10) at Dodgers (Martinez 15-6)
1 p.m., Channel 5, ESPN
WEST DIVISION RACE *--*
TEAM W L Pct. GB Dodgers* 90 71 .559 -- San Diego* 90 71 .559 --
* Clinched playoff berth
* If the Dodgers Win West and Padres Are Wild Card:
Dodgers open five-game divisional playoff series Tuesday at St. Louis.
* If the Padres Win West and Dodgers Are Wild Card:
Dodgers open Wednesday at home vs. Atlanta.
* National League
Tuesday through Oct. 7
* American League
Tuesday through Oct. 6
* TV: NBC, Fox, ESPN
* American League: Oct. 8-16
* National League: Oct. 9-17
* TV: NBC, Fox
* Oct. 19-27; TV: Fox
NL WEST WINNER VS. ST. LOUIS
* Tuesday--at St. Louis, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
* Thursday--at St. Louis, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
* Saturday--at West winner,
4:30 p.m. (Channel 4)
* Oct. 6--at West winner, 8 p.m. (ESPN)*
* Oct. 7--at West winner, 1 p.m. (ESPN)*
WILD CARD VS. ATLANTA
* Wednesday--at wild card, 1 p.m.
* Thursday--at wild card, 5 p.m.
* Saturday--at Atlanta, 1:15 p.m.
* Oct. 6--at Atlanta, 10 a.m. (ESPN)*
* Oct. 7--at Atlanta, 4 p.m.
* if necessary