Tuesday, October 04, 2005 | They must have planned this together. How else to explain the Petco Park architects and Padres’ front office architects building both a clubhouse and championship season so perfectly suited for a champagne celebration?

The Padres, 2005 National League West champions, open the playoffs in St. Louis with games today and Thursday before the series returns to San Diego for a game Saturday and possible games in the best-of-five series Sunday in San Diego and Monday in St. Louis.

Last week, when the Padres celebrated clinching their division title after beating the San Francisco Giants, they seemed naturally drawn to the center of their luxurious oval clubhouse in one big huddle as they doused each other with the bubbly stuff.

Their backdrop was thick sheets of plastic draped from the ceiling, protecting the lockers but not smothering the dressing quarters so the players couldn’t pull back the drapes and get at their lockers.

As the players celebrated, they looked like they were performing together in sync on stage rather than scattered in different corners of a traditional boxy locker room.

Bruce Bochy, the Padres’ manager, stood on the edge of the huddle and soaked up streams of champagne players aimed his way. Not too far away, trying to remain out of the bubbly stuff’s line of fire, was general manager Kevin Towers with his back to the plastic drapery.

Towers, though, was soon a target of the champagne, too. Together, Bochy and Towers managed to steal a title in a division of injury-riddled teams.

The Padres’ 82-80 record is the worst winning percentage of all the playoff teams, but a better number to ponder is where would the Padres have been without their bench players that Towers acquired and Bochy plugged into the lineup?

Mark Sweeney, Eric Young, Damian Jackson and Robert Fick filled holes when Phil Nevin, Mark Loretta, Khalil Greene and Ramon Hernandez were injured.

“Our bench players and role players kept us together,” Bochy said. “They did a great job all year of picking us up when we needed it. We wouldn’t be here without them. All the teams had injuries this year, but we overcame it.”

When Nevin and third baseman Sean Burroughs didn’t hit and a fifth starter failed to materialize, Towers’ midseason acquisitions included Joe Randa at third base, Miguel Oliva behind the plate and Pedro Astacia as a fifth starter. Astacia ended up winning four games and the Padres won seven of his 10 starts.

“KT did a good job of keeping this team together,” left fielder Ryan Klesko said. “It doesn’t matter what our record is, because we’re going to the playoffs. There are a lot of teams that have won 100 games in a season, but then they lost in the first round of the playoffs. We’re playing good ball going into the playoffs, and that’s what you want.”

At the beginning of the season Towers said he considers a good bench worth three to five wins a year, a number that would have accounted for at least half the wins the Padres lacked in 2004 when they finished six games out of first place. But this year the Padres’ bench players – both the ones acquired in the offseason and at midseason – accounted for closer to a dozen wins in games that the Padres might otherwise have lost.

“Hopefully, we’re playing our best ball now that we’re going into the playoffs,” said Towers of a team that won five of its final six games. “We have the respect of the other teams in the playoffs. If we win a couple of games in the first series, anything can happen.”

With two front-line starters in Jake Peavy and Adam Eaton and one of baseball’s best bullpens, all the Padres need is a couple of strong starts to go with some timely hitting.

That was the New York Mets’ formula in 1973 when they won the division with a similarly modest 82-79 record, yet advanced to the World Series. In the playoffs, Tom Seaver headed up a strong pitching staff on a team that caught fire and surprised the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine in the National League playoffs and then nearly upset the Oakland A’s in the World Series.

“We had a lot of ups and downs, but we managed to get through the tough times,” said second baseman Mark Loretta. “I think it will make us a stronger team for the playoffs. The bashing over our record is unfair. The system is set up so that we won the division and we’re going to the playoffs.”

The Petco Park architects and Padres’ front office architects were schooled in different classrooms, but they worked from the same book when it came time to plan a champagne celebration.

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). You can e-mail him at

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