Padres own the Dodgers this season

LOS ANGELES -- Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard isn't quite massive enough to cast a shadow all the way from Houston. But he and his teammates played so well over the weekend, they were a difficult group to ignore here in California.

When the Phillies' 6-4 victory over the Astros flashed on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard Sunday -- directly beneath the "EZ LUBE" advertisement in left field -- it loomed larger than the "THINK BLUE" sign beyond the outfield fence or the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

Think the Padres and Dodgers didn't notice?

"Sure, I was doing a little scoreboard watching," said San Diego left fielder Dave Roberts. "I'm not going to lie. When you're in a pennant race and you can look at a scoreboard and have it mean something, I think that's a good thing. I'm human. I'm guilty."

Here's another pennant race fact of life: It's easier to enjoy a three-team competition when you're in first place and your principal rival is the team in the middle. It's like that old joke: "I don't have to be fast enough to outrun the bear in the woods. I just have to be fast enough to outrun my friend."

For more than five weeks, the Dodgers have held first place in the National League West while the Padres played the role of pursuers and nominal wild-card candidates. But the dynamic has changed -- at least for a day.

With a 2-1 victory Sunday afternoon, San Diego leads the division by a half-game over Los Angeles. That could change Monday night, of course, when staff aces Jake Peavy and Brad Penny take the mound in the finale of this four-game series. But for the moment, the scoreboard watching duties have shifted to Los Angeles.

"We just wanted to pass the Dodgers and let them watch the Phillies," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "Before the game today, I came into the clubhouse and guys were watching the Chargers game on TV. They're loose. That's a very good sign."

Padres outfielder Terrmel Sledge singled home the go-ahead run off Jonathan Broxton, and Trevor Hoffman pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his 39th save this season and 475th of his career. With two weeks remaining, Hoffman needs three more saves to tie Lee Smith's career record of 478.

But more than anything, this game was a testament to the Padres' team strength -- pitching. Their staff leads the National League with a 3.90 ERA, and they're second to the Florida Marlins among NL clubs with 81 quality starts.

After being no-hit for six innings by Greg Maddux on Friday, the Padres have regrouped to take two straight from the Dodgers and now lead the season series 13-4. The Padres leave Los Angeles to play Arizona at Petco Park, while the Dodgers begin a three-game series here against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Part of what makes this L.A.-San Diego series so alluring is the symmetry of the pitching matchups. Friday's opener matched Maddux and David Wells in a prostate exam special. Then the Padres' other 40-year-old starter, Woody Williams, took on Los Angeles rookie Chad Billingsley.

"We just wanted to pass the Dodgers and let them watch the Phillies. Before the game today, I came into the clubhouse and guys were watching the Chargers game on TV. They're loose. That's a very good sign."
-- Padres GM Kevin Towers

Sunday's game had a pickup hoops theme. San Diego starter Chris Young (6-foot-10) played college basketball at Princeton. His opponent, Derek Lowe, averaged 32 points a game as a senior at Edsel Ford High in Detroit and was headed to Eastern Michigan on a basketball scholarship until the Seattle Mariners chose him in the eighth round of the 1991 draft.

The Los Angeles pitching staff also includes Mark Hendrickson, who played college ball at Washington State and spent four seasons in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and three other clubs.

"Those guys would give us a run for our money in a two-on-two game," Young said. "Maybe I should have tryouts and recruit a partner. Boomer [David Wells] told me that basketball was his best sport in high school. But Boomer is kind of far removed from high school."

Young is an extreme flyball pitcher and Lowe makes his living inducing groundball outs, but they were equally effective. Young pitched one-hit, shutout ball for six innings, and Lowe struck out a season-high nine batters. He allowed only one run on a homer by Padres third baseman Russell Branyan in the sixth.

The only downer for San Diego occurred an inning later, when Russell Martin homered to end Padres reliever Cla Meredith's streak of consecutive scoreless innings at 33 2/3. Fernando Valenzuela's record streak of 35 straight shutout innings by a rookie still stands.

"I think Cla will really look back on this someday and appreciate it, because it's awesome." Young said. "He's going to be pitching for a very long time."

Hoffman walked Rafael Furcal in the bottom of the ninth before retiring Kenny Lofton on a flyball to end it. Hoffman has 39 saves in 43 opportunities this season with a 1.80 ERA, and he doesn't show many signs of regressing at age 38. True to form, Hoffman was doing arm curls with free weights outside the San Diego clubhouse when reporters filed into manager Bruce Bochy's office for their postgame quotes.

In a down year for National League starters, Bochy isn't above doing a little Cy Young lobbying on Hoffman's behalf. It helps kill time when he isn't fretting over the Padres' October plans.

"It's not like there's a starter out there having an unbelievable year with 20-something wins," Bochy said. "The reliever tag hurts Trevor, but I hate to think where we'd be without him."

The Padres are first in the NL West with Hoffman, and they're savoring the feeling. In a race this tight, happiness is a day-to-day proposition.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.