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Free swinger Branyan bolsters Padres

Branyan bolsters Padres

ST. LOUIS -- On Sept. 24, a month to the day after the Padres acquired him to shore up third base, Russell Branyan launched a 453-foot home run. It tied for the longest homer in three seasons in the thick air at PETCO Park.

That's the kind of player Branyan is supposed to be. Feast or famine. Towering home runs and sky-high strikeout totals.

"That's what the numbers tell you he is," Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. "But he came here with a great swing, and that was a shocker. I've told him, 'I can trust your swing, but I can't trust you sometimes.' He has to learn to use that swing."

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He used it Saturday to deliver a two-run double and later scored, accounting for all the offense in a 3-1 win over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. The Padres, who dropped the first two games of the series at home, are alive for a Game 4 on Sunday at Busch Stadium.

"We're still down, but we're going to come back [Sunday] and let it all hang out again," the understated Branyan said. "We'll see what happens."

Locked in a scoreless tie heading into the top of the fourth inning -- par for the series -- Adrian Gonzalez sparked the San Diego rally with a one-out single off St. Louis starter Jeff Suppan, and Mike Cameron walked.

Up stepped Branyan, who had flied out to center field in his second-inning at-bat. He fell behind in the count, 1-and-2, but then took two pitches from Suppan, nearly biting on the second of those offerings, a low outside changeup.

That forced Suppan to throw a full-count strike -- another changeup, this one on the inside half of the plate -- and Branyan turned on it, sending a double into the right-field corner for a 2-0 Padres lead. He scampered to third when the Cardinals were slow returning the baseball to the infield, and then scored on Geoff Blum's sacrifice fly.

"If I was able to make a pitch there, locate a better changeup, we might have had a different result," Suppan said.

Just like that, the Padres were up, 3-0 -- their first lead on the Cardinals in a playoff series since Game 3 of the 1996 NLDS, when San Diego took a 4-1 advantage into the sixth, but promptly lost the lead and the game. Since then, the Padres never led in five consecutive postseason losses to the Cardinals, a three-game sweep last season and the first two games of this series.

"It was a relief," Blum said. "Any kind of lead right now is huge for us. That was definitely the break we needed."

It was the only break they got. San Diego was a woeful 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position and stranded 14 men on base, a nine-inning NLDS record. For the three-game series, San Diego is 1-for-24 with runners in scoring position and has stranded 27 baserunners.

"Do the math -- you don't really want that type of ratio," Branyan said. "But we'll take it in a victory."

Branyan admitted he was surprised to even be in the lineup. He is 2-for-12 against Suppan in regular-season matchups, and Padres manager Bruce Bochy had hinted Friday that he was mulling starting Khalil Greene at shortstop in Game 3. That likely would have bumped Blum to third and Branyan out of the mix.

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"I've never felt that uncomfortable against [Suppan]. I've felt like I've just missed a few balls," Branyan said. "It all boils down to how you feel on that day. I feel like the more I play, the better I see it."

What a calendar year for the 30-year-old Branyan, who celebrated the New Year thinking he would report to Spring Training in Phoenix to battle for Milwaukee's starting third-base job. But he was released after the Brewers acquired Corey Koskie from Toronto at a discount, leaving Branyan only with Minor League contract offers from Cleveland, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

He chose the Devil Rays, and was called up to the Majors in early April, only to spend most of his time on the bench. The Devil Rays played "everybody but me" at third base, Branyan quipped, and he was limited to 169 at-bats through Aug. 23.

Then came the Aug. 24 trade to San Diego, a team looking for an everyday third baseman after trying Vinny Castilla, Blum and Todd Walker in that spot. Branyan started 26 of the team's final 33 games at third, and he batted .292 with six home runs and nine RBIs while posting a .933 fielding percentage. He struck out 27 times in 72 at-bats, better than his career average, but not exactly Albert Pujols territory.

"You can tell when he's going to strike out or have a good at-bat right from the beginning," Rettenmund said. "I think he's feeling it right now. Sometimes he gets a little jittery up there, but in the right situation, if he runs into one, he has a chance to do something big for you."

Branyan did that Saturday. He and the Padres will try again Sunday.

"If we can strike early, we can be a dangerous ballclub," Branyan said. "I've never played so many 2-0, 3-1 ballgames in my life. It's been a dream come true for me, because I've been on clubs where eight or nine runs don't do enough for you. We'll see what happens."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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