At the start of the day on June 21, 1996, the Padres were right where we've come to expect them recently, in the National League West cellar. However, the division race was so tight that the 37-36 Friars trailed the division-leading Dodgers by a mere two games, with the Rockies and Giants nestled between them with twin 36-33 records. By the end of the day San Diego would be part of a three-way tie for second, just one game behind Los Angeles. In order to get to that point, the eventual division champions took down their historical punching bags, the Chicago Cubs, 2-1 in ten innings.
The Padres got on the board first, scoring their lone run of the first nine innings on a solo home run from rookie first baseman Jason Thompson, who was up from AAA Las Vegas to fill in for the injured Wally Joyner. Thompson, who was playing in his twelfth and what would prove to be his penultimate major league game, took late Chicago starter Frank Castillo's second pitch to him deep to right field for the second and final home run of his career. He struck out and collected his only big league base on balls in his two subsequent plate appearances, making him the ultimate three-true-outcomes player for that day at least.
San Diego starter Fernando Valenzuela was perfect through his first three innings, and made it unscathed through Chicago's scoring threat in the fourth. Brian McRae doubled to lead off the inning, moved to third on a one-out wild pitch, and was then stranded thanks to a weak ground ball to the mound followed by a harmless fly ball to Steve Finley in center field. Valenzuela worked around an error by Ken Caminiti, that year's eventual league MVP, in the fifth before the Cubs tied the game up in the top of the sixth on the second of ten home runs shortstop Jose Hernandez would hit that season. McRae reached on his second hit, this time a single, and only made it as far as second base before Valenzuela got Sammy Sosa to pop out to Caminiti in foul ground to end the inning. Fernando went back out for the seventh inning, but after a one-out single by catcher Scott Servais and a walk to third baseman Terry Shumpert, manager Bruce Bochy made the call to the bullpen.
Doug Bochtler, now the Padres' bullpen coach, came into the game as half of a double-switch, with the legendary Rickey Henderson taking over for Mark Newfield in left field. He finished out the inning without incident, then came back out and pitched a perfect eighth. Trevor Hoffman, amidst a breakout campaign that would see him finish fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting and record his first season of 40-plus saves, took over in the ninth inning. It was Hoffman's twelfth non-save situation out of the 27 games he'd appeared in to that point, and he put in two innings of work. He allowed just a two-out single by Servais in the ninth, then sat the Cubs down in order in the tenth.
Jim Riggleman, in his second year as Cubs manager after serving the Padres in the same capacity from late-1992 through the '94 season, didn't have to go to his bullpen until the eighth inning. With two runners aboard thanks to a leadoff double from Tony Gwynn and a one-out intentional pass to Ken Caminiti, venerable lefty Bob Patterson was called on to make his thirty-seventh of a career-high 79 appearances. The 37-year-old reliever, who entered the league with three games for the 1985 Padres, got his job done by retiring pinch-hitter Jody Reed. Bochy employed another pinch-hitter, backup catcher Brian Johnson, to avoid a lefty-on-lefty matchup for his fledgling first baseman. Riggleman countered by turning to rookie right-hander Terry Adams, who induced a deep fly ball good for the final out of the frame. Adams stuck around for another inning, allowing only a single to catcher John Flaherty. It was Flaherty's first hit in navy pinstripes since coming over from the Tigers four days earlier along with shortstop Chris Gomez in a trade for Brad Ausmus and Andujar Cedeno.
Like Bochy, Riggleman brought out his closer in a non-save situation, although he held out until the tenth inning to do so. Turk Wendell, best remembered for quirks such as waving to his center fielder before pitching, wearing a necklace made of teeth from animals he had killed, and brushing his teeth between innings, was having what would turn out to be the best season of his 11-year career. Tony Gwynn greeted Wendell with his second double of the game, putting him at 3-for-5 on the day and bringing his season average up to .331; it would climb to .352 by season's end. Steve Finley was then walked to set up the possibility of a double play or fielder's choice at any base, but Caminiti grounded to first baseman and San Diego State alumnus Mark Grace, whose only play was to flip it to Wendell covering. With the runners advancing a base apiece, the winning run was just 90 feet away with only one out.
After hitting for Doug Bochtler in the eighth inning, Jody Reed had stayed in the game playing second base, taking the place of Archi Cianfrocco, who moved a few yards to his left to play first base. Reed, who could charitably be described as "pesky" in his heyday, was even less imposing as he neared the end of his career. With the game on the line, he stepped in against Wendell and fell to a 1-2 count before dumping a statistically unlikely single into center field, bringing home Gwynn.
That win pulled the scuffling Padres out of sole possession of the cellar, and could be viewed as a turning point in their season. The club had been on an astoundingly atrocious 2-16 stretch since losing Wally Joyner to a broken thumb; this game set off an 11-5 run in their remaining 16 games before Joyner's return. They of course had the best record in the division from this game on as well, as they won their second-ever division title in a battle that came down to the final game of the regular season.