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Tuesday, July 19, 2005 | Take Tony Gwynn out of the Padres’ 1984 lineup for two months. Where would the National League champions have finished without him?

Remove Ken Caminiti, with his steroids-boosted performance, out of the lineup of the 1996 NL West champions for 50-some games. Or imagine Greg Vaughn missing for two months from the team that won the 1998 National League pennant.

All three teams would have been up-and-down, maybe mostly down, during a two-month absence of a key player who had been driving them.

Now take Mark Loretta out of the Padres’ 2005 lineup for two months, which is what happened after the Padres’ All-Star second baseman and team MVP the last two years suffered a thumb injury on May 17 that required surgery.

You see, there’s no mystery for the Padres’ Jekyll and Hyde play in June and July after a 22-6 month in May vaulted the Padres into first place in the National League West.

“First and foremost, we need to get Mark back healthy,” said Mark Sweeney, the Padres’ all-purpose man who played in Colorado last year. “Last year he was amazing. I got to watch him from the other side. Mark Loretta is an All-Star.”

Loretta is expected to return to the lineup this week as the Padres open a series tonight against the Mets in New York. His production has been sorely missing from the lineup similar to the manner an injury to Gwynn, Caminiti or Vaughn would have derailed the Padres’ in any of their three postseason runs.

The Padres, currently 50-43 and five-and-a-half games ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West, are fortunate they’re not sitting below .500 down with the Diamondbacks (45-49).

San Diego has been without a guy who drove the team last year with career highs in batting average (.335), hits (208), doubles (47), home runs (16), RBIs (76), runs (108), on base percentage (.391) and slugging percentage (.495). Gwynn is the only other player in franchise history with 200 hits in a season.

“We were lucky as a team to be playing so well when Mark got hurt, and it overshadowed his injury,” Sweeney said. “But now you’re seeing the effect of not having him. You take him out of our lineup and it’s tough.”

And Loretta is only the most important missing ingredient. Mix in injuries to catcher Ramon Hernandez, first baseman Phil Nevin and utility player Eric Young and you could realistically expect to find the Padres sitting lower than Arizona in the standings with the injury-riddled Los Angeles Dodgers (41-51) or the equally injury-riddled San Francisco Giants (40-51).

“Guys like Geoff Blum, Damian Jackson and Robert Fick have been doing a great job,” said Sweeney, who could have included his own name. “When you win it’s not just one guy doing everything. In 1998, that was Tony Gwynn’s team, but we also had guys like Greg Vaughn, Andy Ashby and Kevin Brown.”

Loretta returns to the lineup with a .300 average before he was hurt that would be leading the team if he had maintained it.

Whether he regains his form of the 2003 and 2004 seasons remains to be seen, but he won’t be asked to rally the Padres back into first place. They’ve managed to remain atop the standings, no matter how ugly they’ve been at times without their All-Star.

The Padres’ inconsistency may be difficult to accept, but it’s easy to understand.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show “School and Sports Stars” on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.

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