The first sign that this season might be something special for the Padres—as opposed to the last-place irrelevancy generally expected of them—might have been the blissful forgetfulness of general manager Jed Hoyer. "Early in the season," Hoyer says, "I'd forget who was pitching that night for us. [We've had] solid pitching 1 through 5. You don't worry about turns at the back of the rotation and don't wait for the ace's turn to come around."
Nothing calms a G.M. quite like sending the same five starting pitchers to the mound over and over again. Emerging ace Mat Latos (13--5 through Sunday), Jon Garland (13--8), Clayton Richard (11--5), Kevin Correia (10--8) and Wade LeBlanc (7--11)—who stepped in after Chris Young went down with a shoulder injury after just one start—started all but two of the Padres' first 123 games this season. Buoyed by such reliable starters and the best bullpen in baseball (its 2.80 relief ERA is the game's lowest) behind them, San Diego owned the top record in the National League at week's end (74--49) and a six-game lead in the National League West, led the majors in ERA (3.26), had lost as many as three games in a row only once all year (and not since May) and was on pace to allow 217 fewer runs this season than it did last.
San Diego, a team that last year lost 87 games and finished 20 games out of first place, is just the latest and greatest version of what has become baseball's annual version of The Biggest Loser, in which unlikely teams crash the pennant race by shedding not pounds but ERA points. The 2010 Padres are the 2009 Rockies (107 fewer runs allowed), who were the 2008 Rays (-273), who were the 2007 Cubs (-144), who were the 2006 Tigers (-112)—all of whom cast to obsolescence the phrase five-year rebuilding plan by alchemizing from losers to contenders overnight.
Indeed, in the 15 seasons under the wild-card format, 30 teams—one of every four playoff teams, including seven World Series clubs—have made the postseason a year after a losing season. This year, in addition to San Diego, the Reds (who led the National League Central by 3½ games through Sunday) and the White Sox (second in the AL Central, five games behind the Twins) are contending for playoff berths after losing more games than they won last year.
The Padres, Reds and White Sox, like the 18 such turnaround teams before them, share improved run prevention as a common denominator. It's a familiar story. Although the 2008 Rays, '07 Indians and '07 Diamondbacks morphed from losers to playoff teams while scoring fewer runs, no team has executed such a U-turn while allowing more runs since the 1998 Cubs.
When this season began, the Padres were rated by coolstandings.com, a stats projections site, as having an 8.6% chance of reaching the playoffs. At week's end they were listed at 95.3%, the closest to a sure thing in the majors. "One thing that has helped this team, even going back to spring training, is they like the chip-on-the-shoulder, us-against-the-media challenge," says Hoyer, who, entering his first season in San Diego (after eight years as an assistant general manager in Boston), had a team predicted to finish last in the NL West. "It was like, 'Sixty-eight games? No way. We're going to win way more than that.'
"And momentum becomes a powerful thing. I remember when I was with Boston and watching Tampa in 2008. It was like, 'Are they ever going to hit a snag?' But they got on that roll, and there comes a point when a team knows it's good and it's not going to slow down."
Like the Padres, the '08 Rays used a young, stable rotation as their bedrock. The Rays were one of 20 teams over the previous six years to have four starters make at least 30 starts. Fourteen of those teams made the playoffs; seven of the last 12 World Series teams have had that kind of pitching consistency. "If you went to 15 teams, maybe 20, at the start of the year," Hoyer said, "and said, 'What if you got 150 starts from five guys?' they'd feel pretty good about their chances for the playoffs."
Latos, 22, an 11th-round pick from 2006 signed by Joe Bochy, the brother of former Padres manager and current Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, and LeBlanc, 25, a second-round pick from the same draft, are the only homegrown pitchers in the San Diego rotation. Correia, 29, was signed to a minor league free-agent contract after faltering with the Giants in 2008. Richard, 26, was acquired when the Padres traded erstwhile ace Jake Peavy to the White Sox last season. Garland, 30, was scooped up as a free agent last winter for one year with an option that guarantees him $5.3 million, making him by far Hoyer's most extravagant off-season purchase. Hoyer also signed veteran utility player Jerry Hairston ($2.125 million), catcher Yorvit Torrealba ($1.25 million) and outfielder Matt Stairs ($700,000). "Last year we were atrocious in June and July because we had no depth," Hoyer says. "So we said, 'Let's put together a deeper lineup and pitching staff and not have to use minor league guys in the majors.'"
The bullpen is a testament to the work of Hoyer's predecessor, Kevin Towers, who was fired last October after a 14-year run with the team. Towers swung under-the-radar trades between 2006 and '09 to acquire six of the Padres' seven busiest relievers this year: closer Heath Bell, and Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica, Mike Adams, Joe Thatcher and Ryan Webb—six pitchers who make less than $7 million combined. Largely because of the Peavy trade, San Diego cut its payroll from $43 million last year to $37 million this season. Only the Pirates spend less money, which was one reason the preseason outlook for the Padres was so bleak.