06/06/07 2:45 AM ET
Giles' clutch knock puts Padres in first
Second baseman drives in only run against Dodgers
By Corey Brock / MLB.com
Yes, the same Russell Branyan who is known for his raw power, not his blistering speed.
"Who said that," asked Branyan, tongue firmly planted in cheek following the Padres' 1-0 victory over the Dodgers in front of a frenzied crowd of 31,703 who caught a glimpse of what the National League West race might be like come September.
Or, well, June, July or even August.
In what could well end up as baseball's most competitive division, the Padres inched into first place Tuesday, mere percentage points ahead of the Diamondbacks and a half-game ahead of the Dodgers thanks to a familiar formula that's worked so well for manager Bud Black this season.
Pitching, pitching and more pitching.
The best pitching staff in the Major Leagues -- it's pretty difficult to argue against a staff ERA of 2.89 and nine shutouts -- saw starter Chris Young work seven scoreless innings followed by a scoreless inning from Scott Linebrink (2-1) and then career save No. 499 by closer Trevor Hoffman.
That type of performance, believe it or not, is more or less becoming the norm -- almost as much as the Padres' (34-23) inability to back that pitching with more than a scant few hits and runs, though they could certainly be forgiven on Tuesday.
Jason Schmidt, who hadn't pitched since April 14 because of shoulder bursitis, tied San Diego's hitters in knots for six innings, allowing a second-inning single to Geoff Blum but very little else.
It wasn't until the Dodgers (34-24) went to their bullpen that the Padres offense -- which equated to two hits over nine innings -- got a reprieve. That break, as it was, came in the eighth inning.
With one out and Dodgers reliever and former Padre Rudy Seanez on the mound, Black went to his bench for a pinch-hitter with the pitchers' spot in the order due up. He chose Branyan, who was promptly plunked in the foot with a slider. Then came the unthinkable, or so it seemed.
Branyan took off for second base.
Stunned, Marcus Giles -- who was at the plate at the time -- immediately glanced at third-base coach Glenn Hoffman to make sure that he didn't miss something.
"It surprised me," Giles said of Branyan's stolen base, just the 10th of his Major League career. "I was wondering if I missed a hit-and-run."
He hadn't. Instead, it was Black's way of trying to kick start an offense that couldn't get much done most of the game. And, if nothing else, Black probably wasn't interested in sitting through a, say, 17-inning game as was the case the last time these two teams met in April.
"Our guys do have the green light, so to speak," Black said. "If they get what they feel is a good jump, we're not opposed to trying to steal a base. In this situation, it made sense to get a guy into scoring position. We took a chance and it worked out for us."
Especially when Giles jumped on a 1-2 pitch from Seanez, sending it on a line into center field with what would be the game-winning run.
All that was left was for Hoffman, who allowed one hit in the ninth inning, to get the last three outs. He entered to his trademark "Hells Bells" and left with a handshake with Josh Bard, his catcher, after getting Olmedo Saenz to pop up to end the game, bringing him one save from No. 500.
"I feel honored to be able to watch him first-hand," Black said.
Young and Schmidt were certainly hard enough to hit Tuesday, although there were more baserunners than one might think from a 1-0 game simply for the fact that Young yielded four walks to go with his three hits, while Schmidt walked three batters himself.
But because Young and Schmidt made big pitches when it mattered, scoring opportunities were scarce, as the Padres and Dodgers could count exactly two legitimate scoring chances between them over the first eight innings.
The Padres' threat was much more pronounced, as they loaded the bases in the second inning, attempting to strike first before Schmidt could settle into a comfortable groove, which, of course, he did.
With two outs in the second inning, Kevin Kouzmanoff walked and Blum bounced his single into center field, the only hit Schmidt would allow. Hiram Bocachica, the No. 8 hitter in the Padres' lineup, then coaxed a walk from Schmidt.
That brought up Young who, if for no other reason than he's a pitcher, likely didn't stand much of a chance to chase home a run. But that's almost what happened, as only a superb diving stop-and-throw of a Young bouncer up the middle by Rafael Furcal prevented the Padres from scoring.
The closest the Dodgers came to scoring a run was in a fitful seventh inning that saw Russell Martin start the inning with a single, only to end it with a pair of torn pants, a not-so-well-timed belly flop and one big squandered opportunity.
After several fruitless stolen-base attempts -- Tony Abreu kept fouling off pitches -- Martin finally got his chance to advance to second and beyond when Abreu drove a line drive to right field.
But Martin, who had torn his pants on a previous steal attempt, tripped and fell flat on his stomach after rounding second base. So instead of standing on third base with one out in the inning, he was tagged out in a rundown. Young took care of the rest, getting leadoff hitter Juan Pierre to bounce out to Adrian Gonzalez to end the inning.
Two innings later, Hoffman -- already the Major League's career saves leader -- was one save away from another milestone, the Padres were in first place by half a game and Black likely had a better understanding of what these game against the Dodgers mean, even if it's still June.
"I think anytime the Dodgers are here ... there's just a little different feel. I think whether it's early in the year, middle of the year or late in the year, I think San Diego feels that the Dodgers are somebody we feel as though they are rivals," Black said. "I think I felt it a little in the clubhouse and on the field as well."
He better get used to it. There's still 11 more games on the schedule against the Dodgers.
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.