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San Diego clinches fourth division title

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The San Diego Padres clinched the mild, mild NL
West at .500, then partied like they were 1.000.

The Padres won the fourth division title in their 37-year
history on Wednesday night, beating the San Francisco Giants 9-1 to
return to the postseason for the first time since being swept by
the New York Yankees in the 1998 World Series.

"There's not a greater feeling," said Bruce Bochy, who's
managed the Padres to three division crowns in 10 seasons. "This
team's been pushed. These guys responded. It's been a bumpy road,
but I couldn't be prouder of these guys."

Midseason acquisition Pedro Astacio took a shutout into the
seventh. Rookie Ben Johnson had three hits, scored twice and had an
RBI, and Mark Loretta had three hits and two RBI.

Trevor Hoffman, the only player who's been with the Padres
continuously since 1998, pitched the ninth in a non-save situation.
Hoffman earned saves when the Padres clinched in 1996 and '98.

When pinch-hitter Pedro Feliz hit a game-ending flyout to right
field, the Padres mobbed their veteran closer.

"It's been seven long years," Hoffman said. "Take a look
around -- I don't think anybody cares about our record. Regardless
of what our record was, these guys played like it was playoff
baseball. So hopefully we're gaining momentum."

The Padres drenched each other with champagne in the clubhouse.
When that ran out, they used beer.

They carried the party to the fans, too. Ace Jake Peavy jumped
onto the home dugout, sprayed fans with champagne and gave them
high-fives. He was joined by Adam Eaton, and Hoffman sprayed fans
from the top step of the dugout.

Now the Padres (79-79) need to win three of their last four
games to finish above .500 for just the 11th time in their history.
Since 1969, and excluding strike years, the 1973 New York Mets own
the lowest winning percentage of a division champion by going 82-79
(.509) to win the NL East.

"It is strange to see a team play .500 and get into the
playoffs, but in this division, they are the best team," Giants
shortstop Omar Vizquel said. "They played the best baseball and
were able to hold onto the lead."

San Diego's postseason drought included five straight losing
seasons from 1999-2003 and an 87-75 finish last year, when the
Padres were five games behind the wild-card winning Astros.

Winning the title in baseball's worst division was a drawn-out,
painful process for the Padres. They went 22-6 in May to set a
franchise record for wins in a month, and were 33-19 on May 31.
They immediately began to struggle and are 46-60 since June 1.

Like their rivals, the Padres were affected by injuries.
Regulars Khalil Greene, Ramon Hernandez, Dave Roberts and Loretta
all spent time on the disabled list, as did starting pitchers Adam
Eaton, Woody Williams and Astacio.

But their offense was inconsistent and lacked power. First
baseman Phil Nevin slumped, was benched and then traded to Texas,
and fellow slugger Ryan Klesko has struggled. Klesko leads the
Padres with just 18 homers.

Astacio (4-2) left to a standing ovation after allowing Ray
Durham's double and Edgardo Alfonzo's single to open the seventh.
Pinch-hitter Lance Niekro hit a sacrifice fly off Rudy Seanez.
Astacio struck out three and walked one in winning his fourth
straight decision.

The right-hander was released by Texas on June 21 and signed by
San Diego as a minor league free agent on June 30.

"They are a real good ballclub," Giants manager Felipe Alou
said. "I believe their pitching is good enough to carry them."

Barry Bonds went 2-for-3, both singles.

Fittingly, the Padres beat injured San Francisco ace Jason
Schmidt, who pitched in the last-gasp effort for the second-place
Giants (74-84) despite being slowed most of September by a strained
right groin.

Schmidt (12-7), who missed a start on Friday, lasted four
innings, allowing four runs and six hits.

San Diego had six straight singles off Brian Cooper to open the
seventh, scoring three runs for a 9-1 lead. Johnson, Loretta and
pinch-hitter Robert Fick had RBI.

San Diego scored twice in the first, on Brian Giles' one-out
single and Mark Sweeney's groundout.

Johnson tripled leading off the second and scored on Loretta's
sacrifice fly, and Greene scored on Joe Randa's sacrifice fly in
the third. Giles tripled leading off the fifth and came in on
Sweeney's sacrifice fly. Greene doubled in Johnson in the sixth.

Game notes
The clincher drew 33,992 at 42,500-seat Petco Park. ...
Roberts, sidelined by a strained quadriceps, could be back Friday.
... Lance Armstrong, in town for an appearance with his Tour of
Hope team, was given a Padres No. 7 jersey during a pregame
ceremony in honor of his seven straight Tour de France victories.
... The Padres played 1,142 games between clinching the NL West
flags in 1998 and 2005, going 528-614.