The knuckleball floated every which way tonight as Phil Niekro, age 43, continued to confine retirement to the opposing lineup.

The result was that the Atlanta Braves, winners of six of their last eight games, continued to zoom forward in the National League West like Nolan Ryan's fast ball.

Niekro pitched a three-hit shutout and hit a two-run, eighth-inning home run tonight as the Braves defeated the San Diego Padres, 4-0, before 11,193 at Jack Murphy Stadium.

And the sand continues to fall through 1982 hourglass. There are two games left and the Braves lead the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won at San Francisco, 4-0, tonight, by one game. The Giants are two games back.

One more Atlanta victory and a tie for the division title is clinched.

"This win wasn't big," Atlanta third baseman Jerry Royster said. "It was huge."

As the Braves now find the NL West numbers game rolling to the tune of "Dixie," the Niekro numbers just roll on and on: He is 17-4 this year; this was his second shutout in five days (he beat the Giants, 7-0, Monday) and the 43rd shutout of his career; the home run was his first since 1976 and the seventh of his career.

As he ran his hand through hair that has grown silver through 19 major league seasons, the man with a 257-220 record said with a soft southern pride, "This win wasn't as important as the next two wins I'll get in the next couple of weeks."

He was talking, of course, about the playoffs, something that only he among these Braves has experienced as a member of the Atlanta team. That happened in 1969. "That was so far back," Niekro said.

Tonight, Niekro struck out eight and walked none, throwing 75 percent knuckleballs. He retired 17 in a row until Juan Bonilla's harmless single with two out in the sixth.

San Diego had one rally: first and third in the first with none out. Two strikeouts and a soft fly to center and it was silenced.

Niekro's masterpiece dwarfed a steady eight-inning effort by Padre rookie Eric Show (10-6), who didn't give up a hit until Claudell Washington's run-scoring single in the sixth and who trailed only 1-0 until Niekro homered in the eighth.

Niekro's homer to left followed Glenn Hubbard's walk and Bruce Benedict's sacrifice bunt. "I didn't bunt Benedict to set up Niekro's homer," Atlanta Manager Joe Torre said with a smile and a sigh.

"The homer just seemed to lift the pressure off. It was such a big game that our guys were tight," Torre said. Atlanta players stormed out of the dugout to greet Niekro by the on-deck circle after his home run.

From dugout to dugout to bullpen, the perspective of watching Niekro flash his knuckler under a full moon, was as consistent as the zeros on the Padre linescore.

From one dugout came the words of Atlanta allies:

"His knuckler was a tough to catch as paper in the wind. There was no way they were going to hit him tonight," said catcher Benedict, known as "Skates" on days when he knuckles with Niekro's knucklers. "He showed the competitor he is tonight."

"There was no doubt about Knucksie," said Torre, who is one year younger than Niekro. "He is the same as he was when I came up through instructional league with him in 1959. Very calm."

From the other dugout came the words of the submissive San Diegans:

"His pitches were falling off the table, at least a foot," Bonilla said. "I tried to go to right field once and I just couldn't do it. I struck out."

And from the Braves' bullpen came the words of relaxation:

"We were just kicking back out there," said reliever Steve Bedrosian.

It took two hours 10 minutes for Niekro to run his streak of scoreless innings to 26 2/3. As Padre pitcher John Montefusco, the bitter Brave of 1981, said of his Saturday start against his former mates, "Tomorrow is my day to get even with (owner) Ted Turner forever," the Braves talked only about Niekro.

There was a lot to talk about.

"I've seen him when he can't bend over and when he can hardly walk," said center fielder Dale Murphy. "He's tremendously inspirational."

As players filed out of the visiting clubhouse -- thinking perhaps about magic numbers or perhaps about the fact that this is the stadium where their 13-0 season-opening start began -- Royster kept talking about Niekro.

With a smile, the third baseman who doubled home the final run in the ninth with a double to left, said, "I wish Phil Niekro was pitching tomorrow, too."