John Donovan
Thursday May 8th, 2008

ATLANTA -- In a flash of Adrian Gonzalez's lumber, the ball, as often happens with the other team but rarely with the Padres these days, practically exploded off the bat, rushing toward the seats deep down the right field line at Turner Field. It was one of those no-doubt-about-it shots, a game-breaker, maybe a game-winner. The crowd in Atlanta on this Tuesday night sucked in a deep, anxious breath. Brian Giles, Gonzalez's San Diego teammate, bounced off of second and into a trot toward home. Surely, the Padres were about to take the lead in the ninth inning.

Then somewhere along the way, the seemingly sure thing suddenly wasn't, curving slowly, agonizingly foul. The crowd exhaled. Five pitches later, Gonzalez struck out. And the Padres, once again, ended the game with a whimper.

That's how it's been this early season for San Diego, one of the most inept offensive teams to stumble out of the starting gate in years. The Padres can look completely capable for brief, optimistic moments. They can, on the odd occasion, look close to good.

But things too often end up very, very foul for San Diego. So foul that the Padres, not even six weeks into the season, are already in real danger of getting pushed out of the postseason picture altogether.

"Our offensive success," says the Padres' manager, Bud Black, "is based upon the whole body doing what they're capable of doing. We don't have the one or two guys that can shoulder the burden. We don't have that one player who can carry a team for a week to 10 days, who's hitting homers, knocking runs in, scoring runs, that whole thing.

"We need our guys to rise up to their track records. If they do that, we'll be able to score enough runs to win games."

The problem, of course, is that the Padres haven't been doing anything close to that. After coming within three outs of winning the National League West title last season on two occasions, this year's Padres have dug themselves a MLB-worst 10-game hole in the division, which is currently ruled by the team with the best record in baseball (the Diamondbacks). Meanwhile, at 12-22 the Padres have the game's worst record.

Those results have been maddening for San Diego fans and something between peculiar and borderline amusing for everyone else. With only one player (Gonzalez) being a consistent threat, the Padres own the lowest batting average in the NL (.231), the lowest on-base percentage (a sickening .302) and the lowest slugging percentage (an anemic .339), all of them by a large margin. They average a baseball-low 3.32 runs a game. The last time an NL team scored fewer than 3 ½ runs a game over the course of a full season was in 1992, when the 99-loss Dodgers scored 3.38 a game. This Padres team could do that.

More galling than the sheer numbers, or lack of them -- which are bad enough to bring out the boos in a normally forgiving Southern California place like San Diego -- is the way the Padres' lineup has managed to not score runs. They are remarkably, even for a poor offensive team, un-clutch. They have the lowest batting average in the league with runners in scoring position (.230, tied with the Giants). With two outs and runners in scoring position, they're hitting just .197 (the Brewers, Mets and Reds are worse). And in late and close situations -- defined as in the seventh inning or later with the score tied, with the tying run on deck or the hitting team ahead by a run -- the Padres are hitting .180, a whopping 31 points lower than the next-worst team.

Much of the Padres' weak output can, in fact, be blamed on playing half their games in San Diego's Petco Park, a place where runs are infamously hard to come by. But the Padres have not only struggled at home -- .214, with a .584 OPS -- they've had a hard time of it on the road, where they thrived last season. San Diego is hitting .246, with a .690 OPS on the road. That's 21 points under their average last year and 73 points off their OPS.

Here's the latest example of the Padres' futility: Against the Braves on Wednesday night, they scored just two runs. One came when Atlanta starter Tim Hudson balked a runner home. The other crossed when third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff bounced into a double play.

It was the 16th time this season the Padres have scored two or fewer runs. That's almost half of the games the Padres have played.

"We're getting our opportunities," the team's general manager, Kevin Towers, insists. "We just haven't been able to cash in on them."

The avalanche of missed chances already has buried the Padres. Since dropping a 22-inning killer to the equally disappointing Rockies on April 17 -- after more than six hours, the Padres finally lost, 2-1 -- San Diego is 4-14.

It's hard to pick out one or two players to blame for this mess. It has been, in the truest sense of the term, a team effort. Other than Gonzalez and Giles, everyone is off. To pick out three of the main offenders:

• Jim Edmonds, acquired in an offseason trade with the Cardinals, is hitting just .180 with three extra-base hits. The four-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner has taken the brunt of fan discontent. He could be on the verge of being waived.

• Shortstop Khalil Greene, who crunched 27 homers last season, has only one so far. He's hitting .206.

• Catcher Josh Bard is hitting a sickly .212, with a .305 on-base percentage.

And on and on and on. Yet as badly as the Padres have looked, both players and management maintain that they are not that far from where they need to be.

"We're having problems from third to home. That's about it," says new hitting coach Wally Joyner, who played for the Padres from 1996-99. "We're not going to stop believing that the guys we have here can do the job."

Still, with a start like this one, few others believe. The Padres have, so far, resisted the urge to scrap what they have and make sweeping changes. Black has toyed with the batting order some, most notably dropping Edmonds from the fifth spot. The manager has tried to platoon some players. He has given some days off. He has had talks.

None of it has mattered. The Padres have trailed after seven innings 16 times this season. They are 0-16 in those games.

"I think you can say that if things continue down this way," Black says when pressed, "we may have no choice but to change some things."

The first move may be getting rid of Edmonds. The 37-year-old has been ripped mercilessly in several circles as injury-prone and past his prime. Several observers say that he looks slow and lost at times in the outfield. His numbers at the plate have dropped so precipitously that Wednesday night, trailing by three runs in the ninth, Black pinch hit for him with rookie Callix Crabbe.

Even GM Towers now has his doubts as to whether Edmonds, who has a history of concussions and missed several weeks in spring training with a pulled calf muscle, can be anything close to what the team envisioned when they traded for him last December.

"You'd like to think that they're able to find their way out of it," Towers says of the team's veterans in general. "If not, maybe that's a telltale sign that they're done. You know, there comes a point in time ..."

It's not as if the Padres' roster is overflowing with raw youngsters with huge upsides, either. Giles is 37. Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi is 33. Bard is 30.

By this time, these guys should have a better idea of what they're doing.

"I know the guys are working. I know guys are putting in the extra effort, whether it's in the cage, whether it's watching video or whether it's talking," says veteran first baseman Tony Clark, 36. "We, as a group, are just not functioning efficiently."

The Padres have a couple of minor leaguers who might be able to help, including outfielders Jody Gerut and Chase Headley. Towers, too, is exploring external options, though he says he is inclined to let the younger players try to work things out and, if they can't, to replace them with young players in the organization.

But that breaking point that Towers refers to is closing in quickly on the Padres, if it hasn't already passed. The Diamondbacks are, arguably, the best team in the league. The Dodgers, after a slow start, have won 10 of their last 12. Even the lowly Giants -- who, by the way, now have a one-game lead on the Padres -- have given San Diego fits. The Padres are 1-4 against San Francisco. All four of the losses have been by a single run.

If the Padres don't do something -- and do it quickly -- they're in danger of regressing to the dark days of 2002 and 2003, when they lost 96 games and 98 games, respectively.

"Worried?" Black says. "I'm ... concerned, just because I know that we have a very tough division with some very good teams. That's my sole concern. What we need to do is just start playing better overall. And we do know that there's enough time to make up ground, to chip away and get back to where we think we should be."

Well, maybe. But all the time in the world isn't going to help the Padres if, like that ball off Gonzo's bat, they keep heading in the wrong direction.

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