ST. LOUIS -- The Padres are sick and tired of hearing about it -- that 82-80 record, the worst by a half-game of any team to win a pennant or division title in Major League Baseball history. But it all gets thrown out with the regular-season garbage when their National League Division Series against the 100-win Cardinals begins at 10 a.m. PT on Tuesday at Busch Stadium.

"It all starts off at zeros now," said Mark Loretta, the Padres second baseman, who is making his own first trip to the playoffs at the end of this, his 11th big league season.

"It's just another thing to talk about," said Trevor Hoffman, the closer extraordinaire who is the only Padre left in uniform from the 1998 team that was swept by the Yankees in the World Series, the last San Diego baseball team to make the playoffs. "But everyone has an 0-0 record right now."

The farther the Padres go into the postseason, the more the media is going to compare them to the 1973 Mets, who won the National League East with an 82-79 record, upset the Big Red Machine in the National League Championship Series and actually led the mustachioed Oakland A's, 3-2, in the World Series before succumbing in seven games.

The Padres, who teetered on capturing the division with a sub-.500 record for weeks, actually clinched the NL West last Tuesday night against the Giants and wound up winning by five games, securing the title and an above-.500 record with five wins in their last six games.

Loretta, among others, was quick to point out that the Padres finished 12 games over .500 last season (87-75), but in third place, six games behind the 93-69 Dodgers, who tanked to 71-91 this year.

"If you're asking whether we'd rather finish five games better, but six games out instead of five games worse with a division title, there's no question to be answered there," said Sandy Alderson, who joined the team as its chief executive on May 1. "We'll take the division title."

But these Padres still have a long way to go to match the mystique of those 1973 Mets, who were just four years removed from the Miracle Mets that shocked the talent-laden Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.

First, the Padres must best the Cardinals, losers in a World Series sweep administered by the Red Sox last October. Oh yes, the Padres finished 4-3 with St. Louis including wins in three of the four games played from May 5-8, the last time the two teams met at venerable old Busch Stadium. So there's a little confidence there.

"Well, I bet if they had their hand on a bible they'll tell you they don't think we're really good because they beat us four of seven," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "So I hope we throw out the regular season. We saw them play well and they played well enough to win a championship. And that's what counts. They're in the tournament."

The Padres fed off a 20-6 franchise-record May mark to lead the injury-riddled division every day since May 26. Their lead was never larger than seven games and the Diamondbacks came as close as one game away at the beginning of August. The Padres followed a 10-17 June with a 8-18 July, but from then on they finished out the season with 31-26 mark.

"We had a bad June and July, but offset that with a pretty good August and September," Alderson said. "So you can forget what happened in June and July. And maybe by next week, you can also forget what we did in August and September."

If you're asking for small favors, it's the first time the Padres have put together back-to-back winning seasons since 1991-92, when the team was 84-78, and yes, 82-80. The Padres have had just 13 .500-or-better seasons and four postseason appearances in the 37-year history of the franchise. They've been to the World Series twice (1984 and 1998) and lost both times.

Since Bruce Bochy took over as manager in 1995, he's only had four winning seasons, including 1996 and 1998, the last two times the Padres were in the playoffs. The only other time the Padres made the playoffs, Bochy was a backup catcher on the 1984 squad under Dick Williams, who's the only manager in club history to lead the team to four consecutive .500-or-better seasons (1982-85).

It's an ignominious history, to say the least, punctuated by this year's romp through a once-in-a-generation NL West in which the other four teams finished a combined 68 games under .500.

"The west was not the typical west [this year]," said Jake Peavy, San Diego's Game 1 starter against the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter. "We haven't exactly done it the way we drew it up in Spring Training, but the bottom line is we're here, we're expected to be here and we think we can win. There's 25 guys in that clubhouse who expect to come in here and win.

"I'm not making that up."