SAN DIEGO -- There seems to be a small divergence of opinion in the Padres clubhouse, as reliever Luke Gregerson holds one position on the difficulty of handling the ninth inning as interim closer, while his manager has a conflicting viewpoint.
"It's a different animal," said Padres manager Bud Black.
"I don't feel like it's much different than the seventh and eighth innings," Gregerson countered.
Either way, it was a fun point to debate Wednesday, especially after Gregerson and the Padres held on for a 3-2 victory over the Cardinals before a crowd of 16,442 at Petco Park, a win that proved Black's point on the ninth inning certainly holds merit. The Cardinals maintained their one-game lead over the Dodgers for the second National League Wild Card.
Gregerson, who has been filling in for injured All-Star closer Huston Street, allowed a leadoff double to Allen Craig to start the ninth inning and the Padres (69-75) protecting the smallest of margins. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny then removed Craig for a pinch-runner, Adron Chambers.
That's when Yadier Molina -- a .315 hitter -- decided to bunt him to third, even though Chambers was already in scoring position.
"I was trying to get the guy over there. You need to trust your teammates, not just yourself," Molina said.
The next batter, David Freese, got a slider away that he reached out and rolled over on, bouncing the ball to Chase Headley at third base for the out. Gregerson pitched carefully to the next batter, pinch-hitter Carlos Beltran, and walked him to bring up another pinch-hitter, Skip Schumaker.
Gregerson then nailed down his seventh save by getting Schumaker to ground out to first baseman Yonder Alonso to end the game.
The key at-bat of the inning, well, at least one of them, was Gregerson getting Freese out on a pitch that wasn't out over the middle of the plate, something Freese could have, at the very least, hit somewhere to get the tying run home.
"I really felt like Freese knew I was going to throw sliders," Gregerson said. "I wasn't going to give him something to jump on right away."
And if Gregerson allowed a hit or a fly ball to chase home the tying run?
"If you're going to go down, you might as well go down with your best pitch," he said, smiling.
The victory over the Cardinals (75-68) was the Padres' first three-game sweep of the Redbirds since Aug. 11-12, 1995. The Padres have won 17 of their last 22 games and are now 6 1/2 games off the pace in the National League Wild Card race.
"It's exciting when you're winning and playing good baseball," said Padres pitcher Clayton Richard, who celebrated his 29th birthday in style, winning for the 13th time this season.
Richard allowed two earned runs on three hits in seven innings, with one walk and five strikeouts to go along with 13 ground-ball outs. Richard's lone blemish was the pitch he left out over the plate in the sixth inning with a runner on, as Matt Carpenter hit it over the aisle in right field to tie the game at 2.
"We faced two nasty guys. [Tuesday's winning pitcher Edinson] Volquez, he's one of the tougher guys to hit against," Molina said. "The guy today [Richard] is having a great year. It's no excuse but at the same time, we're facing two good pitchers," Molina said.
The Padres pulled ahead in the bottom of the sixth inning, as Chase Headley doubled with two outs and scored when rookie Yasmani Grandal singled to right field on a full-count pitch for a 3-2 lead.
St. Louis pitcher Kyle Lohse matched Richard for most of the game, allowing two earned runs on five hits, with eight strikeouts in six innings.
Lohse allowed a home run to Logan Forsythe in the second inning, then an unearned run in the fifth inning when Alonso singled and scored on Cameron Maybin's double into the right-field corner, as the right fielder, Carpenter, misplayed the ball.
"He had us handcuffed a little bit," Black said of Lohse. "But we jumped up and bit him."
The Padres have done a lot of that lately and have a blissful mark of 15-3 in games against teams who had a winning record when they faced San Diego.