I just looked back at my first post on July 4th. I told my readers to stay tuned for posts about, among other things, the Padres eventual collapse. Since that post, the Dads built what looked like an insurmountable lead in the NL West by winning series after series, close game after close game, mocking my prediction with every bullpen lockdown.
Then the bottom fell out. Sad Diego has lost ten in a row (though I’m not sure San Diego loses when the Pads do), and lost all but one half game of their ample cushion. I like the Padres, so I thought maybe a post about how easy it was to see this coming would jinx their bad luck and right their ship.
Realistically, though, I wonder if this ship can be righted. The first piece of bad news for the Friars is that their bullpen has been the key to much of their success. While there’s no reason to think Heath Bell, Mike Adams, and Luke Gregerson won’t continue to pitch well, baseball history tells us there’s no success as fickle as a small-sample-sized bullpen ERA.
It’s no secret that San Diego has no offense to speak of beyond Adrian Gonzalez. No other hitter on the team has an OPS over .770, and Ryan Ludwick’s .769 was accumulated more in Busch Stadium than at Petco Park. While Ludwick may provide a spark down the stretch, the team will need to score more than the two runs per game they’ve scored over their past nine.
Perhaps most alarming, the Padres’ starting pitching, which has been seen as a strength all year, may be running out of bullets. Mat Latos now leads the National League with a 2.25 ERA, but he’s pitched 155 2/3 innings, after just 123 all last year (at three levels) and 56 in 2008. Latos’s K/BB ratio of nearly 4:1 suggests he can continue to pitch at this level. His age and experience suggest he may not be able to. Jon Garland is an impressive 13-10 with a 3.31 ERA, but his xFIP of 4.49 suggests that he’s been incredibly lucky, and his career low .265 batting average on balls in play suggests the same. 113 strikeouts and 77 may not keep a pitcher who doesn’t pitch half his games at Petco in the major leagues, let alone in the #2 spot in a contender’s rotation. Beyond those two, Clayton Richard, Kevin Correia, and Wade LeBlanc don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing hitters.
What the Padres do have working in their favor, of course, is the huge cushion that’s let them maintain their lead over the Giants despite losing ten straight, and the fact that it’s not exactly the Rays and Red Sox chasing them. The Giants can pitch, particularly when Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain has the ball, but their offense is porous and has been held up by players like Andres Torres and Pat Burrell playing way beyond what’s expected of them. The Rockies are looking sharp of late, but their rotation is not deep and lacks the cachet of Ubaldo Jimenez’s early-season brilliance, and the offense is not exactly the Helton-Hawpe-Atkins murderer’s row that powered Colorado to two playoff surges in the past three years.
The 2006 Tigers and 2008 Rays will tell you that a late-season swoon doesn’t necessarily spell the end for a contending team, even one with a lot of young players and low preseason expectations. Six days into September, we can’t count out a team that still leads its division and has allowed 51 fewer runs than any other team in either league. Coolstandings.com gives the Padres a 61.8% chance of making the playoffs. Even if that’s a bit optimistic, let’s not forget: they’re still in first place as of this writing. Let’s hope this is the last update on their losing streak.