SAN DIEGO -- Twenty years later, the 1998 Padres -- widely regarded as the greatest team in franchise history -- are remembered mostly for their stars.• Sterling Hitchcock's career statsTony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman have since been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Kevin Brown recorded arguably the greatest season
SAN DIEGO -- Twenty years later, the 1998 Padres -- widely regarded as the greatest team in franchise history -- are remembered mostly for their stars.
• Sterling Hitchcock's career stats
Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman have since been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Kevin Brown recorded arguably the greatest season ever by a Padres pitcher. Ken Caminiti and Greg Vaughn anchored a fearsome middle of the lineup.
But for all the starpower on that '98 club, four of the most important games -- in that season, and in the history of the Padres' franchise -- fell squarely into the lap of left-hander Sterling Hitchcock.
• Each team's most unlikely postseason heroes
He made the most of them. Hitchcock didn't start the year in the rotation. He ended it by outdueling Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and David Cone in the playoffs.
"It was the best I've ever pitched in my life," said Hitchcock, who played 13 seasons and finished with a 4.80 ERA as a mostly undistinguished back-end starter.
Every franchise has its share of unlikely postseason heroes, players who rise to the challenge on the sport's biggest stage. For the Padres, no one represents that better than Hitchcock, who went 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA that October.
"He just got on such a roll," said Bruce Bochy, then manager of the Padres. "He pitched in some real turning-point games in the playoffs. ... And he was locked in."
The Padres met the Astros in the 1998 National League Division Series, which is largely remembered for Kevin Brown's heroics in Game 1. He struck out 16 and beat Johnson in one of the greatest playoff pitchers' duels ever.
The two clubs split the next two games, setting up a showdown between Johnson and Hitchcock in Game 4. A loss would've meant a return trip to a raucous Astrodome for a decisive Game 5.
Hitchcock took care of that with six brilliant innings. He allowed one run on three hits and struck out 11. The Padres won, 6-1, sending them to the NL Championship Series against the juggernaut Braves -- where Hitchcock beat Maddux in Game 3, giving the Padres a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead.
"Going into those games, you know you've got to limit the runs and the baserunners," Hitchcock said. "Because on the other end of that, your offense isn't going to get a whole lot of opportunities to score. Our guys were phenomenal at coming up with those clutch hits."
Hitchcock got another such opportunity on short rest in Game 6. The Padres dropped two straight at home and endured a subdued cross-country flight, clinging to a 3-2 series lead.
"The way we lost Game 5 … it was a buzzkill," Hitchcock said. "We knew we needed Game 6 because we were going to see [Maddux] in Game 7. [Game] 6 was very important.
"It was just a pitch at a time for me. We broke it open in the sixth inning, and from there it was just a lot of fun. It was a big moment for us, certainly the biggest stage I'd been on in my career."
Hitchcock struck out eight Braves and allowed two hits. His biggest contribution might have come with the bat. With the Padres leading by one in the sixth, Hitchcock came to the plate with the bases loaded.
He fell behind in the count, 0-2, before reaching to flare a tricky blooper into shallow left field. Danny Bautista dove and couldn't corral it, and the ball kicked away. All three runs scored, and shortly thereafter the party started.
"Granted, it should've been caught, but he was one of the worst hitters I've ever seen," Bochy said. "He put it in play, and good things happened."
Said Hitchcock: "I was definitely never known for my hitting abilities, and that goes back to Little League. ... It was more luck than anything, but was certainly a big moment."
That Game 6 triumph was the last for the Padres in 1998. They'd be swept by the Yankees in the World Series. But, again, Hitchcock held his own. He toed the slab for Game 3, the first World Series game at Qualcomm Stadium in 14 years.
"The crowd was amazing," Hitchcock said. "I remember coming out for Game 3, as I walked from the dugout down to the bullpen, the electricity in the air and the music and the crowd on top of that. As I started walking down the line, section after section was cheering for me.
"It had to be like Mike Tyson walking into the ring or something. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was that way for every game there in San Diego. It was just absolutely amazing. There's different crowds and different stadiums known for their noise -- old Yankee Stadium, the Kingdome. But I don't know if they have anything on Qualcomm during that run of games."
Hitchcock put forth a performance befitting the moment. He pitched six innings and allowed two runs (one earned), before Scott Brosius famously homered off Trevor Hoffman in the eighth to set the Yankees on course for their title.
The finish was disappointing, but Hitchcock has nothing but fond memories of that playoff run. Most of those memories revolve around his teammates, who share a close bond to this day. Many of them, Hitchcock included, reunited earlier this summer when the Padres feted the 1998 team's 20th anniversary. A handful were in Cooperstown in late July for Hoffman's Hall induction.
Hitchcock isn't surprised.
"We're still a close-knit group today," he said. "But that was the whole feel of that '98 team. It was a team effort all the way around."
A team effort. And on a team that boasted the likes of Gwynn, Hoffman, Caminiti and Brown, Hitchcock was as pivotal a piece as any.
AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.