SAN DIEGO -- In his five years as Dodgers manager and now in his first with the Pirates, Jim Tracy said he now dreads the entrance of Padres closer Trevor Hoffman in a tight game. "I've learned to hate that song 'Hells Bells,'" Tracy said about the AC/DC anthem the Padres always play when Hoffman comes trotting in from the bullpen in the top of the ninth to nail down a home game, whether it was at Qualcomm Stadium in the old days or PETCO Park now. "My boys love to play it and laugh. And I just tell them to turn it off." So it was more than apropos that the music filled the collective ears of Saturday's sellout crowd -- 43,168 -- on the night the nearly 39-year-old right-hander matched Lee Smith for first place on the all-time list with his 478th save.
The magic moment came in Hoffman's 816th Major League appearance and put the punctuation point on a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh that helped solidify San Diego's lead in the National League West over the Dodgers, who lost to the Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium and slipped behind the Phillies by a half-game in the Wild Card race. "The crowd was really into it tonight," said Bruce Bochy, who took over as manager of the Padres in 1995 and has had Hoffman, when healthy, as his closer ever since. "You could feel the energy." No wonder. With eight games left to play, the 82-72 Padres head into Sunday's action leading Los Angeles by 1 1/2 games. Equally as important is the fact that the Padres now have an edge on the suddenly floundering 80-73 Central Division-leading Cardinals. If the playoffs began today, the Padres would have home-field advantage in their National League Division Series. All of that, of course, was more significant to Hoffman than merely matching the 6-foot-6 Smith, who carved his save mark over an 18-year career playing for eight teams. "I definitely think it makes things a little bit easier to be doing this in a pennant race," Hoffman said afterward. "It could be extremely lonely, in a sense, to go through this process with a team that wouldn't be in it and have all the attention on something that's very individualized. It's a great [storyline] that it's taking place in a pennant race. The top goal and the top topic is how the ballclub is doing and not achieving saves." Considering the emotional week that was for the Padres, Hoffman's NL-leading 42nd save was relatively easy, accomplished by retiring three straight batters on only 12 pitches. He was one of three Padres relievers on the firing line Monday night in Los Angeles when the Dodgers came from behind in classic fashion by hitting four consecutive homers in the ninth to tie the score and another in the 10th to win it. Since Hoffman allowed back-to-back homers on successive pitches to blow his fifth opportunity of the season, he's saved three others and the Padres are 4-1 since that devastating loss, including Chris Young's near no-hitter on Friday night in a victory over the Bucs. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have gone flat and are 2-3 since sending their faithful home after one of the most titillating regular-season victories in franchise history. "It's been like this the whole month," Bochy said. "I've been proud of the guys. Going back to L.A., it was a tough one. But they've showed how resilient they are." Hoffman replaced starter Jake Peavy, who worked the opening eight innings, allowing only six hits and the single run, while walking none and striking out 11 Pirates. Hoffman began business by inducing friend and former teammate Xavier Nady to fly out on three pitches. Catcher Ronnie Paulino faced only four pitches before grounding out to second, and Ryan Doumit struck out, wildly swinging on the fifth pitch -- a trademark Hoffman changeup -- to end the long chase. Hoffman said he was well aware of how much was on the line from a personal and team perspective as he worked through the tense half inning that ended with virtually everyone in the crowd on their feet. "I guess until you get there in the moment and you're out there on the mound you don't know what you're going to feel," Hoffman said. "You've done it so many times and the routine's there, but you understand the magnitude of the situation. You just try to stay locked into the moment." Behind Hoffman, Mariano Rivera is the next in line among active relievers in fourth place overall with 413 saves in 717 appearances. But the Yankees closer has missed much of the last month with a sore elbow and right now seems a distant 65 saves short of Hoffman, who will still have many more opportunities and many more times to trot in from the 'pen to the strains of his favorite piece of rock music. When told how Tracy felt about those few bars that ring each time the bullpen gate swings open and No. 51 comes through, Bochy could only chuckle. "It's obvious I feel a lot differently about it," he said. "It's a beautiful tune. I don't know all the words yet, but one day I hope to listen to the whole thing. It's a song that we're hoping to hear [often] at this stage of the game."
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.