ST. LOUIS -- Just when the Padres' postseason situation appeared most grave, they were able to turn the ball over in the ninth inning on Saturday to old reliable No. 51.

For all his regular-season success -- and there's been plenty of it -- Trevor Hoffman has been a victim of playoff circumstances. His team hasn't been there much during the course of his 14-year career and when it has, he hasn't excelled. Until Saturday, Hoffman hadn't had a postseason save opportunity since Oct. 20, 1998 -- Game 3 of that World Series against the Yankees.

"That's the last time before last year we got in the postseason," said Woody Williams. "And last year, we were gone before we even got in."

The Padres were nearly gone this year again before they even got in. But despite leaving 14 men on base -- the most in a Division Series game -- they scratched together three runs and held on for dear life until Hoffman closed the door with seven pitches to record only his fourth postseason save and first since Oct. 10, 1998.

The 3-1 victory resuscitated the Padres, who now trail the best-of-five series, 2-1, going into Sunday's crucial Game 4 at new Busch Stadium. If the Padres tie the series, it shifts back to a winner-takes-all contest at PETCO Park on Monday.

Hoffman has 482 career regular-season saves, passing Lee Smith into first on the all-time list at 479 on Sept. 24. Though it's only been two weeks since then, it seems like eons ago.

The Padres have been playing for their lives with every game holding more significance than this franchise has been accustomed.

Like his club, Hoffman has dropped the ball the few times he'd previously taken center stage. In the aforementioned World Series game, Hoffman came on in the top of the eighth inning at San Diego, nursing a 3-2 lead. Scott Brosius hit a three-run homer and the next night, the Yankees completed the sweep.

Hoffman's previous three playoff saves all came during the 1998 postseason -- two in the Division Series against the Astros and the other in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series against the Braves.

"Unfortunately, I haven't had a lot of opportunities," Hoffman said. "That's all right, though. I'm pretty fortunate that I've had a couple. There are some people who've played this game a lot longer than I have who've never had an opportunity."

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Until Saturday, the Padres had lost eight consecutive NLDS games to the Cardinals and this was only Hoffman's third appearance, second with the game on the line. He came into Game 3 in 1996 in the top of the ninth inning with the score tied, 5-5. The Cardinals scored twice and won the series.

But Hoffman said those memories weren't even a flicker in his mind as he took the field. A man who holds the record with nearly a 90-percent save conversion rate in his career seems impervious of not closing the deal.

"All you can do is go out and do the next job you get," Hoffman said. "I don't know how you do it. There's some resiliency. You've got to forget. But I think if you dwell on it, then you become timid. And you can't be timid in the ninth inning. With me, with the pitches I feature, if I'm not aggressive, the hitters are going to feed on that. You have to say, 'I'm coming right at you.' If it's good enough, it's good enough."

Hoffman was hardly timid on Saturday. As the mid-afternoon autumn shadows began to creep from home plate toward the mound at Busch Stadium, Hoffman mixed up his fastball, slider and changeup to dispatch the Cardinals within minutes.

It was vintage Hoffman. As soon as Jim Edmonds hit his first offering to the warning track in center, there was the sense that the jig was up. Scott Rolen grounded meekly to short and Juan Encarnacion struck out swinging. Six of the seven pitches were strikes, meaning Hoffman never fell behind on the count.

"With a two-run lead, you don't want to put a guy on and give them a chance to pop one and tie the ballgame up," Hoffman said. "The shadows added to the deception of my changeup."

Whatever it was, it was magic to watch Hoffman pull the genie out of the bottle for once in the postseason. It was more than overdue.

"Twenty years from now, nobody's going to remember me for the few bad outings I've had," he said. "That's not how I'm going to be defined."

But they will remember Hoffman for that and they do already. Just like the Yankees' Mariano Rivera will be defined by his 17-7 record, 34 saves and 0.81 earned run average in the postseason, although most of that success now seems like a distant memory.

"It goes along with the territory that everything is magnified [in the playoffs]," Hoffman said. "You've got to seize the moment."

Consider Saturday's moment seized.