PHOENIX — This is the Padres’ moment. This is exactly why they are here, in first place, having the most startling season in what has been a pretty startling season all around in baseball. This is why they are here — up 2-1 on Wednesday afternoon against the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks, seventh inning, their great defense and dominant bullpen about to put an end to this speed bump of a six-game losing streak.
Moments like this are why, until the last few days, the Padres had been slump-proof. Do you know their longest losing streak up to this one? Three games. That’s all. And it only happened once… they have not lost more than two in a row since mid-May. And this is the reason, because of situations like this, because all year long they have wrenched and jerked 1-0 and 2-1 and 3-2 victories away from the other guys. They have won 24 games when scoring three runs or fewer — no other team in baseball has won more than 18. This is their den. This is their show. How do you lead the National League West by four games when you are 12th — TWELFTH — in the league in runs? Right. You win these games you are leading 2-1 in the seventh inning.
“I think we have the best bullpen in the National League,” Padres manager Bud Black will say at the end of this one. That was his response to why he pulled his pitcher, Mat Latos, after only six innings and 99 pitches. Latos, as has become his custom this year, was electrifying. He won’t even turn 23 until December, and he has a 2.29 ERA, he leads the league in WHIP, he’s allowing barely more than six hits per nine innings. Whew. And in this game, he was ON — he struck out a career-high 10*, he allowed only four hits, he made only one real mistake, and it wasn’t exactly a mistake. In the seventh, with the count 3-1, he decided not to give in, he decided to challenge Chris Young with a 95-mph fastball up. Young accepted the challenge and blasted the ball off the left-field foul pole for the Diamondbacks’ first run.
*Though striking out 10 Diamondbacks isn’t exactly breaking news… this was the 56th time it has happened this year. That ties the D-Backs for the all-time record, held by the 2001 Milwaukee Brewers. A lot more on this to come in a post soon.
In any case, it was 1-1 in the seventh, and there were two outs, and there was a man on first, and Latos’ spot came up in the order. Black pinch-hit Matt Stairs. Why? Well, hey, his team is 12th in the league in runs scored. His guys had lost six in a row… and had not scored more than five runs in any of those games. For this team, a man on first with two outs is a potential RALLY, and you never turn your nose up at a potential rally. Black put Stairs in and Stairs obliged with a hard single to right. Will Venable singled up the middle, and that scored the run, and now the Padres were exactly where they love being, up 2-1 in the seventh.
In comes Luke Gregerson, who has been ridiculously great — the league is hitting .160 against him. The plan is in place and everybody who follows the Padres knows it by heart. Gregerson will throw his scoreless inning, Mike Adams will shut down the eighth inning, Heath Bell will ring ‘em up in the ninth, and it will be another 2-1 victory, sixth of the year, looking good…
…only Gregerson walks Mark Reynolds. There’s a conference on the mound.
…only Miguel Montero hits a double-play ground ball to second, which Everth Cabrera throws a bit too hard to shortstop, and Miguel Tejada drops the ball. Everybody’s save.
…only Gerardo Parra hits a hard ground ball to second — another potential double play — and Cabrera cannot quite glove it. And the bases are loaded, nobody out.
* * *
In 2003 the Kansas City Royals were in first place until the end of August. The thing that made it wonderful and baffling all at once is that nobody was quite sure how they were doing it. It was like a magic trick. I was watching them every single day, and I had no idea how it was done. Only, it really wasn’t like a magic trick. At a Vegas magic show, when you don’t know how something is done you think, “This guy’s is a great magician.” In baseball, when you don’t know how something is done you think, “Oh boy, this ain’t gonna last.”
The Royals were winning because Jose Lima, plucked off an Independent League team (the Royals didn’t even go see him pitch before signing him and putting him in a game), had a 2.17 ERA in his first eight starts, and the Royals won all eight of those starts. The Royals were winning because a shortstop named Angel Berroa played with so much energy and gusto, he won the Rookie of the Year award (pitchers did not fully understand, yet, that they never had to throw him a strike). They were winning because Carlos Beltran was a truly great player that year — he got on base (.389 on base percentage), he hit for power (26 homers, .522 slugging), he might have been the best base runner in the game (41 stolen bases, four caught, brilliant going first to third and second to home on singles), and he was breathtaking defensively in center field (or the opposite of breathtaking — he made it look too easy, like he wasn’t trying hard enough even as he caught everything). They were winning because a pitcher named Darrell May — who would draw some fame later in Kansas City for complaining that he did not get enough no-decisions — pitched well. They were winning because the AL Central was a lousy division. They were winning because they got off to a ridiculous start — 16 wins in their first 19 games — and they rode it out. They were winning because… just because. And there was no way it could last. And it didn’t last. They lost 10 of 14 and finished out the year in third place, seven back.
Now, I don’t bring this up entirely as an excuse to write about the one halfway interesting Royals team of the last 15 years — though those opportunities are rare — but also because, when it comes down to it, I have no real idea how this Padres team is doing it, either. I mean, yes, I know the basics. The Padres have allowed 40 fewer runs this year than any team in baseball. Their bullpen has a 2.79 ERA — the whole bullpen — and an absurd 439-to-120 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and the league hits .215 against them. The Padres defense, by the naked eye and by advanced statistics such as John Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved, is excellent. And, offensively, Adrian Gonzalez is having another great year (.299/.388/.517) that does not look as great as it really is because he spends half his games hitting balloons in the canyon that is PETCO Park.*
*Gonzalez has hit 17 of his 27 homers on the road and is slugging 114 points higher away from home. That’s not surprising. Opponents have had trouble against Padres pitching all year, but in San Diego they are almost pointless. Opponents are hitting .220/.291/.338 all year at PETCO.
I understand why the Padres are winning… they have a terrific run differential, and it doesn’t matter if you win 5-3 or 3-1. The Padres’ pitching and defense has been so good that they have only been blown out by five runs or more 11 times, fewest in the NL. They are more or less in every game.
The part that is baffling is HOW they are pitching so well.
• Jon Garland has been on five different teams the last four years, and he has not had a sub-4.00 ERA since 2005. This year he’s 13-9 with a 3.29 ERA.
• Clayton Richard is a 26-year-old lefty who was a backup quarterback at Michigan. He came over from Chicago in the Jake Peavy deal last year. He’s 12-6 with a 3.50 ERA.
• Mat Latos was an 11th-round pick out of high school in 2006, he was pushed fast up the system, and was called up last year as a 21-year-old. He’s 13-5 with a 2.29 ERA.
• Mike Adams was an amateur free agent, and he has kicked around pro baseball for 10 years. He has been traded twice, and released twice — including by the Padres. He has a 1.94 ERA in 51 innings — 48 of those being eighth innings.
• Joe Thatcher is a 28-year-old lefty, also undrafted, who comes from Kokomo, Ind., and, as such, is called the Throwin’ Kokomoan by those so inclined. He has appeared in 28 games this year where he has thrown 1/3 of an inning or less, most in National League. He seems the purest of specialists — lefties hit .185 against him. But, at least this year, righties only hit .152 against him.
With closer Heath Bell having perhaps his best year — he is not a surprise, he has pitched well ever since arriving from the Mets in what seemed like a minor deal — and others pitching in, and PETCO Park weighing on opposing hitters, well, yeah, that’s the story. And it’s a story that nobody really seemed to see coming.
And it’s a wonderful story. When people talk about heartbreak cities, they tend to forget about San Diego — maybe because it’s hard to imagine anyone who gets to live in San Diego being too heartbroken. But San Diego has not had a major championship since its 1963 AFL title game victory over the Boston Patriots, and even that was in the fledgling days of the AFL. The Chargers have brought more pain than joy through the years. The Padres have appeared in two World Series — and have managed to win one measly game. It would be great if this Padres team that nobody expected to win could take the city on a magic carpet ride.
Only, it comes back to the basics. I still have no idea how they’re doing it.
And though 30 days hath September — it is still a long baseball month.
* * *
Sometimes when something dramatic is about to happen in baseball game, you can feel it coming. That’s one of the charms of baseball. Maybe it’s real, maybe it isn’t — it probably isn’t too real — but every now and again you will be watching a game, and a situation will come up, and you will feel what’s about to happen.
Bases loaded, nobody out, Arizona’s Brandon Allen stepped to the plate. Allen had just been recalled — he’s 24, and this was his first big league game of the year. He had never hit a grand slam before. And yet, as he stepped in there, the air was charged with that feeling: Grand slam. And, yes, he hit it.
This is just how it’s going for the Padres. “Nothing is really going our way right now — that’s how it goes in a long season,” Bud Black said, and he’s right. Allen hit the grand slam, and the Padres blew their 2-1 lead, and they lost their seventh game in a row. The Giants won, so they are now within three games of San Diego.
It’s hard to tell how their first free-fall of the season is affecting the Padres. There’s a great story about the golfer and optometrist Gil Morgan, who in 1992 somehow managed to get his score to 12-under par at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It was ludicrous, and he knew it. And then he found himself on the wrong side of the hole, facing an impossible chip heading downhill — it was a double-bogey for sure. And he said to himself: “OK, this is where the U.S. Open begins.” He was eight over par for the rest of the day. He shot 81 the next day.
And so maybe this is where the Padres’ pennant race begins. Their manager, Bud Black, seems calm. “They’re all important games,” he says, which is the right thing to say. He’s the only former big league pitcher managing today, and it seems that helps his perspective. All managers offer this one-day-at-a-time stuff, but Black, as a former pitcher, seems to have an especially deep understanding that it’s a long season (pitchers spend 125 or so games of it watching), and you can’t control much beyond what you can control (guys have to score runs for you, other pitchers have to pitch well for you), and you just gotta go get ‘em tomorrow. When someone asked Black about the fateful inning and the two double plays that were not turned, he did not seem quite sure how to answer. Was he supposed to give his feelings about them? Was he supposed to say that he wished the double plays had been turned? He didn’t know. So he just recounted them. He said the first ground ball, the throw was probably too hard. He said the second ground ball was a tough play.
“Does that answer your question?” he asked, not unkindly.
Make no mistake, seven losses in a row is a bad sign. Good teams don’t lose seven games in a row often. The Atlanta Braves did not lose seven in a row from 1991 through 2005. The Boston Red Sox have not lost seven in a row since 2001. To lose seven in a row, especially in late August-early September, especially in a pennant race, especially when nobody really expected you to be here… it’s not a great sign.
It’s not devastating, either. The Padres are still in first place. They are about to start a 10-game homestand — they play 17 of their last 30 at home — where they have pitched lights-out. They have seven games left with the second-place Giants, and so far, anyway, they have owned the Giants, winning nine of 11. They still have that bullpen, and they still have Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of the lineup. So, they are still the team to beat in the West.
But Wednesday’s loss hurt, no question. The Padres have to win when they are leading 2-1 late in the game. That’s who they are. Or, as the saying goes, that’s who they are not.