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PADRES CLINCH WEST TITLE; DODGERS BLOW 7-RUN LEAD BEFORE BIG CROWD : SAN DIEGO 8, DODGERS 7.

Byline: Matt McHale Daily News Staff Writer

The San Diego Padres had 60,823 reasons to clinch the NL West on Saturday night and for once none of them had to do with the Dodgers.

The way the Padres dismantled the Dodgers 8-7 after trailing by seven runs had nothing to do with a rivalry that definitely took this year off. It was just the truest mark of a champion. The Padres just never gave up.

``This shows the heart and determination we've had all year,'' said slugger Greg Vaughn. ``This is awesome, but it is just the first step.''

In front of the second largest crowd ever to see a game in the 30-year history of Jack Murphy and now Qualcomm Stadium, the Padres scored three runs in the fifth and five in the sixth to win their second division title in three years.

The Padres also won the West in 1996 when they overtook the Dodgers on the season's final weekend. They were eliminated in the first round, but this year, they have been dominating since Opening Day and hope to go a lot further.

The Dodgers, who are now 19 games out with 13 to play, never challenged this year. Perhaps fittingly, the Padres won on the same field where the Dodgers clinched the West in 1988. That was the year they won the World Series and the last time they won a playoff game.

In the end, it was Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, brother of Dodgers manager Glenn Hoffman, striking out Matt Luke to record his 49th save. Luke drove in the Dodgers' first five runs, but now the Padres were running on the field to celebrate.

``That was very tough to watch,'' Glenn Hoffman said. ``That's where we want to be. Out on the field celebrating.''

As for his emotions watching his brother put his team away to clinch the division title, Hoffman refused to comment. But Hoffman also knows that the Padres finished last in the West a year ago. But with all the changes coming this winter, there is no guarantee he'll be back.

There's some uncertainty here as well. The Padres are trying to get voters to approve construction of a new stadium on the November ballot. They also face losing top free agents Kevin Brown and Ken Caminiti. Saturday certainly was a ringing endorsement.

``I am so proud of these guys, I can't tell you,'' said former Dodger Dave Stewart, now the Padres pitching coach. ``Every day they came to play. This is the proof.''

For San Diego, it was the 52nd home victory, the best in the National League and only one fewer than the New York Yankees' major-league high.

And all this without eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn, who is sidelined with wrist and Achilles injuries. Gwynn was all over the ballpark, however. The Padres distributed Tony Gwynn T-shirts to the crowd, and the packed house was a sea of white.

For the Dodgers, Saturday's loss was typical in many ways, but also the worst of the season. Their previous worst game was July 23 when they blew a 6-0 lead to Houston and lost 8-6.

Luke, playing left field, appeared to give Dodgers starter Dave Mlicki (8-8) all he needed by driving in five runs in the first three innings. Eric Karros added a two-run homer in the fifth off Padres starter Stan Spencer, who was making just his fourth major-league start.

``Talk about highs and lows,'' Luke said. ``It felt so great early in the game. But that's baseball.''

On Mars, maybe.

Dave Mlicki entered the fifth having faced just one batter over the minimum. Things still looked fine when Wally Joyner opened the inning with his 12th homer. But when Greg Myers followed with a single and Andy Sheets reached base on a fielding error by third baseman Adrian Beltre, the mood changed.

Beltre had just entered the game as a defensive replacement for Bobby Bonilla.

Mlicki then gave up a two-run double to Chris Gomez, cutting the Dodgers' lead to 7-3.

Mlicki, who entered the game 7-3 in 17 starts since joining the Dodgers on June 4, just fell apart. And with a bullpen that now features rookies Sean Maloney and Jeff Kubenka after injuries to Antonio Osuna and Mark Guthrie, there was little to stop the madness.

In all, those three walked five batters in the sixth when San Diego took the lead.

``We couldn't throw a strike,'' Hoffman said. ``You don't beat a team like this doing that.''

Mlicki opened the sixth by allowing a single to Vaughn then walked the next three batters, including Myers with the bases loaded. He was replaced by Maloney, who hit his first batter, Sheets, then walked Gomez.

Kubenka allowed a sac fly to pinch hitter Quilvio Veras that tied the game at seven. Kubenka, who recorded his first major-league victory Tuesday in Arizona, retired Steve Finley, but walked Mark Sweeney.

Vaughn was the 10th batter of the inning, and he gave the Padres the lead with an RBI single to left. But Luke threw out Gomez at the plate to end the inning.

The Dodgers still had three innings to tie the game, but it never happened.

They had runners at first and third with one out in the seventh, but didn't score. Former longtime Angels left-hander Mark Langston came in to face Luke. It was Langston's first relief appearance since October 1986 - a span of 331 consecutive starts - when he pitched for Seattle.

Luke hit a sharp grounder to first off the glove of Joyner, but Sheets picked up the ball at second and threw to Langston covering for the out.

Luke was the only batter for Langston, who will be working out of the bullpen in the playoffs.

Dan Miceli replaced Langston and struck out Mark Grudzielanek, leaving the go-ahead runs on base.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 13, 1998
Words:979
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