UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Baseball's surprise team surprises even themselves at deadline

LOS ANGELES -- When Heath Bell learned that the Padres traded for Ryan Ludwick, he honestly did not think much of it. "I just assumed he was hurt," Bell said. The Padres have a rich tradition of acquiring players who are injured, old, or, for other reasons, incapacitated. Think Mike Piazza when he could no longer catch, Vinny Castilla when he could no longer hit, Rickey Henderson when he could no longer run. Last Thursday, the Padres traded for Miguel Tejada, which seemed an appropriate fit. Tejada, after all, is 36 and diminished defensively. But on Saturday the Padres landed Ludwick, and although he is indeed coming off a recent calf strain, Bell was astonished to learn that he would be arriving with a relatively clean bill of health.

For four months the Padres have been baseball's cute little engine that could, grabbing the best record in the National League and holding on with a $38 million payroll that ranked second-lowest in the major leagues, a pop-gun offense ranked 25th in batting average, and an outfield where none of the starters hit over .235. Bell did not expect the Padres to improve appreciably at the deadline because, well, they are usually so cheap they would ask for discounts at a 10-cent store. When a friend asked Bell last month if the Padres were truly a championship team, Bell said: "We'll see. Championship teams go out and get that extra piece."

Ludwick is not just a piece but a pillar, the kind the Padres have been missing for about five years, a power-hitting outfielder in his prime who is athletic enough to cover the open spaces at Petco Park and feared enough to protect Adrian Gonzalez in the batting order. In the past five Opening Days, these are the luminaries who batted behind Gonzalez: Kyle Blanks, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Scott Hairston, Josh Bard, Khalil Greene. Ludwick, who hit 70 home runs in St. Louis since 2008, moved into the cleanup spot Monday night and instantly brought credibility to the Padres lineup it did not have a week ago. Ludwick already ranks second to Gonzalez on the team in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. "I can tell," Ludwick said, "that they want me here."

He was not implying that he went unwanted in St. Louis, but the emergence of Jon Jay to go along with Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus made him expendable. "I was a small fish in a big pond," Ludwick said. For the Padres, he is arguably their biggest catch at the deadline since Greg Vaughn came from Milwaukee in 1996. That season, they went to the playoffs and were swept in the first round by the Cardinals, which became something of a habit. The last two times the Padres made the playoffs, in 2005 and 2006, they were also knocked out by the Cardinals in the first round. It is rare that one contender would give another a player like Ludwick, with the chance they would meet again in October, but that's the risk the Cardinals are taking.

Perhaps they, like so many others, did not believe San Diego would last. Sure, the Padres have the best ERA in the majors. They have lost three games in a row only once. Their bullpen is deeper than the ones anchored by alltime saves leader Trevor Hoffman in '05 and '06. But how could a team really win a division with a bunch of fourth outfielders? Ludwick puts that question to rest. He turns the Padres from sweet story into serious threat.

Ludwick also helps mend the divide that existed between clubhouse and front office. In May, one player said: "If we're still in this thing in July, some people in the front office are going to be saying: 'Uh-oh.'" The implication was that the Padres wanted to fall out of the race so they could trade Bell and Gonzalez, thereby keeping the payroll down. But when the same player was asked Monday about the Ludwick trade, he said: "Jed Hoyer, you are awesome."

Hoyer is the Padres first-year general manager, who turned a few fringe prospects into Ludwick and Tejada. Much of the credit for the Padres success rightly goes to former general manager Kevin Towers, but Hoyer is the one who nabbed Yorvit Torrealba (.324 batting average), Aaron Cunningham (.312) and Jon Garland (3.60 ERA) over the winter. The Padres only had two All-Stars, but they have a candidate for executive of the year in Hoyer and manager of the year in Bud Black. "Our team from the outset of this season has had to prove what we are," Black said. "We haven't had the luxury of relaxing."

The Padres have a chance this week, in a four-game series at Dodger Stadium, to put away the team they hate most. The Dodgers are coming off consecutive division titles, but seem poisoned by the divorce between owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, and now trail the Padres by nine games. Proving that the McCourts still have a few bucks left over from legal fees and vacation homes, the Dodgers traded for four veterans last week, highlighted by soon-to-be free-agent Ted Lilly. "They're really excited to be here," said manager Joe Torre. Usually, when veterans are traded at the deadline, they are enthused because they're moving to contenders. At this point, the Dodgers are closer to irrelevance.

RELATED: VERDUCCI: How Dodgers GM bucked trend at deadline

On Monday, for instance, Torre held a team meeting to make sure the Dodgers understood the significance of this series. Then in the first inning, he watched Matt Kemp loaf home on a two-out single by Casey Blake, crossing the plate after James Loney was thrown out at third. A run was waved off, and the Dodgers went on to lose. They had endured a similar base-running mistake two months ago in Anaheim, when the Dodgers lost a game in identical fashion. These are the plays that could drive a 70-year-old manager into retirement.

While the Dodgers are still dealing with their divorce, the Padres may finally be pulling out of theirs. Since former owners John and Becky Moores split, the Padres have operated as if Tom Werner were back in control, peddling Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield in their prime. But by acquiring Ludwick, they agreed to pay what is left of his $5.45 million salary and they control his rights for next season, when he is eligible for arbitration. In Ludwick's first at-bat with the Padres on Sunday, he received a standing ovation at Petco Park, coaxed a seven-pitch at-bat against Marlins ace Josh Johnson, and finally lined a single to left that set up a game-winning rally.

"I only had to be here one day to see why they are where they are," Ludwick said. "They play hard and have fun."

In 2008, baseball audiences took until September to accept that the Rays were not going to fade. These Padres are not nearly as talented as those Rays, but they also don't have the Yankees and Red Sox in their division. They can win the NL West with the same old things that got them this far -- low scores and an excellent bullpen -- and, with a thumper they never thought would arrive, a new thing they hope can take them even farther.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.