SAN DIEGO – Bound on three sides by international border, sea and 125,000 acres of Marines, the San Diego Padres are socially, economically and spiritually cornered, so they exist naturally as underdogs.
Their habitat is sand and marine layer and doubt.
They feed off scraps left by Yankees, Cubs and Kevin Towers.
Their ballpark, the lovely Petco Park, is maybe half full on most nights. They took a deep breath on a January night last winter and spent a little more than $2 million for utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes), clinching 29th place in player payroll.
In their clubhouse they dress in gray T-shirts, the word BELIEVE on their chests, followed by an exclamation point, either adamant or wishful.
See, the habit of the franchise is to break up enduring dark times with the occasional flash of competence, a World Series appearance every 15 years or so, just enough to warm and brighten their little corner of the hardball world.
It was, then, mildly interesting that the Padres led the National League West in mid-June of 2010, and soon had the best record in the National League, and a couple months later – after 125 games, or three-quarters of the season – had pretty much sneaked up on everybody.
Not only had they refused to sell off contracts at the trading deadline, they'd taken on a No. 3 hitter (Ryan Ludwick(notes)) and a No. 5 hitter (Miguel Tejada(notes)), enveloping local icon Adrian Gonzalez(notes) in professional at-bats. A few weeks later they led the West by 6½ games and the Padres – the Padres – and their popgun offense and cannon arms and uncommon relentlessness were another month from the unthinkable. Except everybody was thinking it.
At about that time, Jim Tracy, manager of the Colorado Rockies, took a long look at the standings, another look at the schedule, and said, "Let me tell you how this season is going to end. In the case of the Dodgers, in the case of the Rockies and the Giants, somebody of the three of us is going to have to get white hot. And even that might not be enough. Then the Padres would have to get a flat tire and forget how to fix it."
Well, wouldn't you know, that's about when the right rear tire went.
The Padres became – how to put this gently – the Padres. Instead of having just enough to win, they played just poorly enough to lose. Over 11 days from Aug. 26 to Sunday afternoon, they lost 10 consecutive games. The offense that nobody ever really believed in scored a little more than two runs a game. The pitching everybody believed was on the raw side gave up five runs a game.
The Rockies gained 6½ games. The Giants picked up 5½. Hairston went to the disabled list. Ludwick hit .194. The regulars outside of Gonzalez batted .201. Young starters Mat Latos(notes) and Clayton Richard(notes) blew past their previous highs in innings pitched. Parts of the bullpen went soft.
The locals looked up long enough to wonder if their gutty unit more resembled the 1964 Phillies or the 1995 Angels. Or if the 1969 Cubs were the better comparison.
After building a resilience that hadn't before allowed even a four-game losing streak, the Padres tugged at the necks of those BELIEVE! T-shirts. To the cause, their closer sacrificed a chicken. Actually, it was chicken parts. From a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. (With two sides, only a dollar more.) OK, he'd sacrificed a chicken that already had been chopped up, battered, deep-fried and stuffed into a cardboard container. ("We needed extra power," Heath Bell(notes) explained.) To the cause, they scrapped their usual clubhouse tunes for classic Michael Jackson. To the cause, manager Bud Black revealed, "Ludwick took his shirt off at some event last night," the details of which he kept to himself.
"I've remained sane," he said with a slight grin. "I think."
A few minutes after 10 p.m. corner-of-baseball time Monday night, the crowd at half-filled Petco Park stood and applauded the final out of a Padres victory. It chanted "Beat L.A.," because for a week-and-a-half its Padres had lost resolutely to Arizona (four times), Philadelphia (three times) and the Rockies (three times). But the Dodgers they could beat by a familiar score of just enough wood (four) to just-enough pitching (two), by a fielder's choice and an infield single and a sacrifice fly.
The Padres had clomped around in their big-boy shoes for so long, perhaps they were bound to run straight out of them.
But, barefoot plays here, on the sand and under the marine layer. They had seven hits, including Nick Hundley's(notes) solo home run. They used seven relief pitchers and no starting pitchers, because their ace – Latos – spent the previous night enduring what he called a "violent" stomach reaction. He was not believed to have partaken in the KFC ritual. And it was enough. For the first time in going on two weeks, it was enough.
"We needed a win," Bell said, "bad."
And now they are underdogs again, cornered, even from ahead. Of course, that plays here, too. They're going to have to find more innings from those young and extended arms, and more quality at-bats from those emerging ballplayers, and maybe some more good fortune. They'll need Hairston, who had become so important to them, to heal. They're in a race, self-inflicted, where once there was none.
"I think there was a big exhale," Black said afterward. "But I think our guys know that 20 hours from now they have another game. They know what month we're in and where we're headed."