Fantastic Finish

Forget those April predictions. Upstart contenders (that's you, Padres), breakthrough stars (hello, Joey Votto) and resurrected veterans (welcome back, Miguel Tejada) will make it a September to remember
August 29, 2010

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.

Likewise, neither the Reds nor the White Sox can attribute their turnarounds to huge free-agent expenditures. Last winter the Reds spent less than $4 million to get shortstop Orlando Cabrera, outfielder Jonny Gomes and infielder Miguel Cairo. (They did invest $30 million in Cuban free-agent Aroldis Chapman, but he has yet to appear in the big leagues.) The White Sox spent less free-agent money ($5.8 million) than every club except Cleveland and Florida, giving modest one-year deals to reliever J.J. Putz, infielder Omar Vizquel, catcher Ramon Castro and outfielder Andruw Jones.

The Reds have not been as fortunate as San Diego with rotation stability, having to work around injuries to Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey and the fatigue of rookie Mike Leake. While they have improved their run prevention, their run production has jumped even more markedly—Cincinnati leads the league in runs—largely because of healthy seasons from first baseman Joey Votto (next page) and third baseman Scott Rolen. In particular, the Reds have bullied the four losing teams in their division, going 29--11 against the Brewers, Astros, Cubs and Pirates.

Both Cincinnati, which finished 2009 on a 27--13 run, and San Diego, which closed 23--13, can point to last season as the beginning of their turnarounds. But serendipity also helps make a Cinderella, be it a run of good health for starting pitchers, an upswing in relief pitching—one of baseball's most unpredictable elements (the Padres' pen, for example, has ranked 1, 7, 25 and 1 in the majors in the past four seasons)—or, in Cincinnati's case, a division with little resistance.

"There are surprise teams that are built on high draft picks and planning," says one G.M., "and others that just have a special year. I love San Diego, but it could be one of those special years. Like the Brewers [in 2008], most of these teams get one year, then it's five or six waiting for another window. Don't kid yourself. The large markets still have a huge advantage. The small markets can't sustain it."

It is true that surprise teams have little staying power. Magical seasons with stable rotations, lockdown bullpens and uncanny clutch hitting—the Padres hit .274 with runners in scoring position, .244 without—tend not to repeat themselves. Of the 30 teams that morphed from losers to elite, only six returned to the postseason the following year, and those six were flush with money, ranking no worse than ninth in payroll.

Ah, but why worry about next year when you can dream on this one? When this week began, the Rangers (having built an 87-win foundation last year), Cincinnati and San Diego—combined postseason series wins the past decade: 0—all held first-place leads of at least 3½ games. The surprise party is becoming an annual event. This year's participants should enjoy it while it lasts.

It's baseball's annual version of The Biggest Loser: Unlikely teams crash the pennant race by shedding ERA points.

PHOTOPhotograph by EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGESSNEAK ATTACK San Diego was expected to finish last, but so far Ryan Ludwick and the Padres have slid past their rivals in the NL West. PHOTOBRAD MANGINSTABLE MATES The rotation of Latos, Garland, Correia, Richard and LeBlanc (from left) has stayed intact and put the Padres in first. PHOTOLENNY IGNELZI/AP[See caption above] PHOTORICH KANE/ICON SMI[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above] PHOTOHUNTER MARTIN/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERRESURGENT SLUGGERS Rebound years from Paul Konerko (left), who has 31 homers, and Rolen, who has 18, have helped the White Sox and Reds contend. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)