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Scrappy Padres still hanging on

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Diego Padres are the first to acknowledge they've wasted numerous chances to finally put the mediocre NL West race out of reach.

Manager Bruce Bochy says it, so does Dave Roberts. Eric Young is tired of the underachieving. Mark Sweeney just wants this group to go all out for a full nine innings.

San Diego has sat alone in first place for all but two days since May 26, and those they spent tied atop the division standings. Still, the disappointing Padres aren't assured of anything yet.

They began their off day Thursday leading both Los Angeles and San Francisco by six games with 17 to play — and that's with their final seven against the Dodgers and Giants, who meet for four games starting Thursday night.

"I don't really analyze the win-loss aspect and what-ifs," shortstop Khalil Greene said. "Ultimately, we're trying to play good baseball and the other stuff will take its course."

Mired in a four-game losing streak with a sputtering offense, the Padres lost four straight before rallying to win the series finale with San Francisco on Wednesday with an impressive display of clutch hitting, pitching and defense.

They had better keep it up if they're serious about extending their season. The Padres haven't been to the playoffs since losing the 1998 World Series to the New York Yankees with Tony Gwynn as their best hitter.

The 2005 team isn't one of superstars by any stretch of the imagination, but the players feed off each other's successes. They all had their confidence back after beating the Giants.

"We could easily have quit," said Roberts, the speedy center fielder who was one of general manager Kevin Towers' key offseason acquisitions to help get the Padres over the hump. "This is a time when we could have easily conceded."

San Diego has the talent and depth to take this thing — though nobody gives the Padres much chance in the playoffs coming out of a division now widely considered a laughingstock.

At times it has seemed San Diego doesn't want it the way the Dodgers or Giants do. The Padres — threatening to become the first team in major league history to win a division with a losing record — blew early leads in their first two games at SBC Park this week, then had to work overtime to salvage the finale and keep from being swept.

Since 1969, and excluding strike years, the 1973 New York Mets own the lowest winning percentage of a division champion after going 82-79 (.509), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 1984 Kansas City Royals and 1997 Houston Astros both won their divisions with .519 winning percentages (84-78).

"We're in this," Padres utilityman Robert Fick said. "We've got a chance to be in the playoffs. We've got to quit looking behind our shoulders and seize the opportunity."

Sean Burroughs — the very player San Diego sent down to the minors in July for 5 1/2 weeks to work out the kinks in his swing — gave the Padres an unexpected and much-needed lift when, facing an 0-2 count, he hit a tying two-out, two-run double off Armando Benitez in the ninth inning of Wednesday's 5-4, 10-inning win. Brian Giles lined a tiebreaking single with two outs in the 10th.

A fan yelled to Bochy to put Burroughs in and "I listened to him," the skipper said.

"That's probably the hit of the year," Fick said. "We stopped their momentum, and hopefully we stopped the Dodgers' momentum."

Every player shared Fick's sentiment, calling Burroughs' hit the most meaningful of the season for the Padres — in their most meaningful game. A six-game lead is quite a difference from a four-game cushion. "That's a big swing, four to six," Young said.

Only a few minutes afterward, Young sat on the clubhouse couch with Giles and catcher Ramon Hernandez on a chair pulled up next to them to discuss what had just happened. They were replaying all the key moments aloud.

"It's huge," Bochy said. "The last thing you want to do is come in here and get swept." That was a big turnaround for us." We had to stop the losing streak. You hope it's something you build on, that it gets you rolling and back in the win column. Any time you've lost four in a row to your rivals, it's big to break the streak. ...

"I'm proud of them. It shows a lot of heart. We haven't had one of these in a while."

San Diego was outscored 19-11 during its skid.

And the way the series with the Giants had been going, it appeared Bochy's short team meeting Tuesday would be for naught. It was along the same lines of a pep talk he delivered in the visiting clubhouse at SBC Park back on April 27. The Padres proceeded to go 22-6 in May, but followed that month with a 10-17 record in June and 8-18 showing in July.

Through all the exasperating inconsistencies of this season, Bochy has been impressed with the resolve and attitude — "Nobody's hanging their heads," he said.

The Padres went home Wednesday on a high note, looking forward to a day of rest and relaxation before three weekend games with Washington. It will be a brief stay at Petco Park — they play four in Colorado starting Monday followed by a three-game set at Arizona.

San Diego thought it had the best team in the division a year ago, but finished in third place and five games behind the wild-card winning Houston Astros. The Padres, who went 87-75 in 2004 for their first winning season in six years, looked ahead to this season determined not to miss out again.

The next two weeks will be the tell all.

"It's going to come down to the wire," Young said. "There's a lot of baseball left."