LOS ANGELES -- The date on the calendar says there are 14 games remaining. That's 14 games for Trevor Hoffman to record three more saves to tie Lee Smith on the all-time list, and for the Padres to lock up their second consecutive National League West title. The two continued in lockstep on Sunday with a scant two weeks left in the regular season. Hoffman did what he does best and recorded the game's last three outs as the Padres nipped the Dodgers, 2-1, at Dodger Stadium. Thus, the Friars crept back into first place on Sunday by a half-game for the first time since Aug. 9 with the finale of the four-game series set for Monday night. In the process, Hoffman recorded his 39th save of the season and the 475th of his 14-year career. Smith had 478 when he retired in 1997.
"It's a huge deal," said Hoffman, about leaping back over the Dodgers, who supplanted the Padres in first place and had held serve there for 38 days. "What was perfect about it is that [converting the save] allowed us to go a half-game up in the division. The last thing from my mind and everybody's minds is the record. I'm not disrespecting it at all. It's all about propelling this team into the postseason and doing things that are necessary to make that happen." Hoffman has saved 12 in a row since his last blown opportunity, in Colorado on July 27, and Sunday's finish puts him back in the NL lead by one over Mets left-hander Billy Wagner. The Angels' Francisco Rodriguez leads the Majors with 42. Hoffman has made good in his four opportunities this month, but he hasn't had the chance to pitch much, entering a game only twice since Sept. 6. At that pace, it might be 2007 before Hoffman surpasses Smith, which is just fine with the record-holder, who pitched for eight teams in his 18 seasons. "Tell him to just hold off for another year so I can keep the record for awhile," Smith said, when reached by phone a few days ago. "He's giving me all this publicity and I'm liking it." Then again, if the Padres are to make the playoffs for only the fifth time in their 38-year history, Hoffman may have to break the record this season. On Sunday, they needed every one of Hoffman's 21 pitches to shut down the Dodgers, who fell behind in the top of the ninth on a pinch-hit single by Terrmel Sledge off right-hander Jonathan Broxton. Once Hoffman trotted out of the right-field bullpen, the Dodgers knew they were up against it. "Trevor's only blown something like two games against us, ever," said Dodgers starter Derek Lowe. "They've got to feel pretty confident every time he goes out there against us." It wasn't vintage Hoffman, but it was certainly good enough. After rookie catcher Russell Martin popped out in foul territory on the first pitch, Hoffman went to the full count on the next three hitters, a rarity for him. He induced pinch-hitter Nomar Garciaparra to strike out swinging on a high inside fastball for the second out, and then walked Rafael Furcal. In that instance, Hoffman fell behind 3-and-0 and Furcal took two pitches right down the middle, finally walking to give the Dodgers a bit of life. The game ended with an epic eight-pitch confrontation against Kenny Lofton, who drilled a line drive to center fielder Mike Cameron for the final out. Asked if the ball had hooked at all as he began trailing toward left-center field, Cameron said: "It was hit straight. Straight into my glove." With that, the clock inexorably continued to move forward toward the record and the postseason. And as Hoffman so aptly put it: "We'll be able to enjoy this for about three hours. Then we're going to have to go back out there [Monday] night and do it again."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.