The decision to start Kevin Brown on three days' rest against the Houston Astros Saturday night was no decision--at least in the mind of San Diego Padre General Manager Kevin Towers.
"You have to look at this now as a best-two-of-three-games series," he said. "We have the home-field advantage. Do you start your best guy in the second game? No way. You start him in the first game."
Brown, who struck out 16 and yielded only two hits in San Diego's 2-1 victory in Game 1, responded.
He struck out five and walked five, but he also gave up only three hits and one run in 6 2/3 innings, providing the foundation for another 2-1 victory for the Padres before a rousing, towel-waving crowd of 65,235--the largest in San Diego history--at Qualcomm Stadium.
Trevor Hoffman struck out the side in the ninth to preserve a win that gave San Diego a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.
The Padres can win it at home today and advance to the National League's championship series against the Atlanta Braves, but they face the difficult task of overcoming Randy Johnson in the 4:30 shadows. The Astros had hoped to save Johnson for Game 5 Monday in Houston, if that was necessary, but switched from Jose Lima with San Diego's victory Saturday night.
The Padres--who have scored only eight runs in the three games--collected only three hits off Mike Hampton and Scott Elarton, but the longest and loudest was the fourth--a towering homer by Jim Leyritz off Elarton in the seventh, breaking a 1-1 tie. It was Leyritz's second homer of the series and fifth in 14 postseason games as the man they're calling Mr. October Jr.
"It's my wife's cooking," said Leyritz, the valuable utility man who is getting more opportunities than usual because of Wally Joyner's ongoing problems with a shoulder injury. Leyritz played first base Saturday night and will catch Sterling Hitchcock today.
"It's hard to keep him out of there," Manager Bruce Bochy said. "You can't say enough for what he's done in pressure situations. He's had some huge hits."
Saturday night, Leyritz wore Darryl Strawberry's number on his cap, acknowledging his former New York Yankee teammate's battle with cancer. Of his October success, he said: "I don't want to think about it. If I think about it, it might not happen. I'm just going up there and looking for a pitch I can handle. Like I said the other day, it's been a case of being in the right spot at the right time."
The Astros had suggested that the Padres were playing their trump card prematurely by starting Brown on short rest, but the team that led the NL in runs during the regular season has now scored only two in the two games Brown has started.
"We weren't swinging and missing like we did in the first game," Manager Larry Dierker said, "but he was still dealing good stuff from a lot of different angles, and we didn't hit the ball that well. We just haven't done what we did all season in these three games."
Brown delivered 100 pitches after making 118 in Game 1, finally leaving with a 1-1 count, two out, and the bases loaded in the seventh.
"He was close to running on fumes at the end," Bochy said, "but you can't say enough for the effort he gave us."
Tony Gwynn, whose bat has created more headlines than his arm and legs, significantly contributed to the win with those appendages.
The right fielder cut down Moises Alou trying to go from first to third on a single by Carl Everett in the seventh, restricting damage in the inning that the Astros tied the score at 1-1, the inning in which Brown left and Dan Miceli came in to strike out Bill Spiers with two out and the bases loaded.
An inning earlier, Gwynn, who has been handicapped by an Achilles' tendon injury, beat the throw to first on a potential double play, allowing Chris Gomez to score from third with the first run. A singles by Gomez, a sacrifice by Brown and a single by Quilvio Veras put Gomez in position to end the scoreless duel between Brown and Mike Hampton.
The Astro left-hander came in with 1-4 career record against the Pdres and had allowed 18 hits in 18 1/3 innings against San Diego this year, but he did not allow a hit until Gomez led off that sixth with his single.
The Padres are getting it down with a minimal offense and now face Johnson in the twilight.
"I feel pretty good with Randy going tomorrow and even better with the game starting at [4:30]," Dierker said. "Of course, they have a pretty good pitcher [Hitchcock] going as well.
"It's sort of the equivalent of Brown against Hampton, and you saw that Hampton was able to battle Brown even, and it may turn out to be the same type of low-scoring game."
At this point, the only type the Padres and Astros seem capable of playing.