The Padres will almost certainly finish third in the National League West race and — contrary to what you may have thought in March — that’s OK. Because as we have seen, eclipsing both the Giants and Dodgers this year would’ve been like climbing Mt. Everest in flip-flops.
The Giants have shocked the baseball world by maintaining a hot pace through three-fourths of the season. They own the sport’s best record, having already blown past the 75-win mark oddsmakers set for them in March.
Right behind the Giants in the MLB standings, not just the NL West race, is a Dodgers club that has heated up lately.
Get this: The Pads would have to be pacing at 106 wins to lead the Giants and Dodgers. That was doable, sure — if you gave them Kevin Brown, Randy Jones and Tony Gwynn in their prime.
Despite their recent fade, the Padres have won enough games to involve themselves in a second playoff race: for the second wild card, adopted in 2012.
What the Padres have going for them while they try not to see various shades of red — in their rear-view mirror are the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, trailing by one game, 3.5 games and five games, respectively — is a very slight edge in overall talent in this race.
That’s an assertion I can’t quantify. I ran it by two Hall of Fame baseball writers who’ve covered the Reds and Cardinals, each for five decades. They didn’t disagree. More importantly, we all agreed on this: A lot rides on Padres ace Yu Darvish and Chris Paddack returning from injury fairly soon, as team management apparently expects they will.
“I would say the Padres are a better club if those guys are back fairly soon; if those guys are not back fairly soon, they are not a better team than the Cardinals,” said Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“The Padres have a lot of talent, that’s for sure,” said Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News. I have attached the same disclaimer: Darvish-Paddack have to help out for the Padres to hold even a thin edge in talent.
McCoy said don’t count out the Phillies, whose minus-25 run differential is only slightly worse than that of the Cardinals (minus-21).
Cincinnati represents a major threat to the Padres, said McCoy, and not just because of an explosive offense and improved pitching staff.
San Diego still must play 19 games against the Giants and Dodgers, to say nothing of sets against the AL West-leading Houston Astros and the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves.
“Judging on the schedules,” said McCoy, who began covering the Reds in 1973, “the Padres should be very afraid of the Reds despite the fact (Cincinnati) lost two games this week to the Cubs that were atrocious.
“The Reds are very dangerous,” he said. “Everybody in the lineup can hit. They can hit for power and can hit for the gaps. It’s just a real scary lineup.
“The starting pitching is pretty strong,” he added. “Their only weak spot is the bullpen, and they brought in three guys from the trade deadline, and they’ve all been pretty strong.”
The Padres don’t want this race to come down to the right side of Cincinnati’s infield.
“Joey Votto has found the fountain of youth somewhere,” McCoy said of the 37-year-old first baseman, who has 27 home runs and a .947 OPS. “The guy is incredible. I thought he was washed up two years ago. He changed his batting stance and approach, started swinging for home runs and just reinvented himself. Jonathan India is the Rookie of the Year. You have to see him every day.”
True to their tradition, the Cardinals know how to play baseball.
“When they have their lineup out there, you don’t get anything from them” in the form of defensive mistakes, said Hummel. “That’s their big chance. Get in position where they have all their guys back, and if you beat them, you beat them. They don’t give you anything.”
Adam Wainwright, their ace, is outsmarting young hitters while pitching to a 3.26 ERA. Soon to turn 40, the old man has logged 154.2 innings, tied for a second in the NL.
“He takes a little off, puts a little on,” said Hummel, who’s in his 49th year of MLB reporting. “He Doesn’t throw two pitches at the same speed ever. Yadier Molina and he are like a concert to watch.”
For the Padres, it’s time to sneak a peek at the scoreboard each day. Even if they’d rather not, it’s almost unavoidable as a West Coast team. And it’s fun. This playoff race is the franchise’s first in a 162-game season since the 2010 team took the Giants to the 162nd game.
The Padres have infused drama in this race. Now we’ll see if they can avert a Red October.