SAN FRANCISCO — So, a few San Diego players sat in a circle in a happy-but-not-too-happy Padres clubhouse and they went over the possibilities. “No, no, no,” Scott Hairston was saying. “If the Braves win tomorrow …”
“No, I’m saying if the Braves LOSE tomorrow,” Oscar Salazar said.
“Wait,” Luke Gregerson said. “Are we talking about if they win or if they lose?’
“You know what?” Hairston said. “Let’s just win, all right?”
This is the best plan at this point. The National League playoff picture is calculus at the moment, and the only thing that really matters for the Padres is winning. They came into Friday night cold, lost, on the brink of elimination. But they won an emotional game Friday night, with a crazed San Francisco crowd ready to celebrate. And they won an emotional game Saturday afternoon with Journey lead singer (and Giants fan) Steve Perry singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” in the crowd.
And now, the Padres go into Sunday with three different playoff scenarios, a couple of them baffling enough to confuse Copernicus. Let’s go over all the scenarios first and then we can talk about these amazing Padres.
Scenario 1: The Giants beat the Padres, and Atlanta beats Philadelphia.
— This is one of two easy ones. Right now, Atlanta and San Diego are tied for the wildcard, and San Francisco is one game up on both. In this Giants win/Braves win scenario, the Giants will win the National League West and the Braves will be the wildcard. No extra games necessary.
Scenario 2: The Padres beat the Giants, and Philadelphia beats Atlanta.
— This is the second easy one. In this case, the Padres would win the National League West (thanks to their head-to-head record against San Francisco), and the Giants will be the wildcard. The Braves are eliminated. I actually don’t like scenario this much — it seems to me that the division title should not be determined by head-to-head record. But this is the way things set up in baseball. Since both the Giants and Padres would qualify for the playoffs in this scenario, the baseball gurus have determined that it’s not worth having a one-game playoff just to see which team is division champ and which team is wildcard. So, again, Padres would be champ; Giants would be wildcard.
Scenario 3: The Giants beat the Padres, and Philadelphia beats Atlanta.
— OK, now we are dealing with an extra game. In this scenario, the Giants would be NL West division champs. And the Padres and Braves would play each other in a one-game wildcard playoff in Atlanta on Monday.
Scenario 4: The Padres beat the Giants, and Atlanta beats Philadelphia.
— And finally the world-is-exploding scenario. If this happens (and it certainly could happen), then we have a three-way tie between San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta. And that would mean the first three-team, two-game playoff in baseball history. In this scenario, the Giants and Padres would play a one-game playoff Monday evening in San Diego, with the winner claiming the National League West. The loser would then have to hop on a plane and play ANOTHER one-game playoff, this one against the Braves for the wildcard. The winner of THAT game, should it be San Diego or San Francisco, would then go to Philadelphia on Wednesday for the first game of the National League Division Series. This means it is not impossible that the Padres or Giants could play:
Sunday in San Francisco.
Monday in San Diego
Tuesday in Atlanta
Wednesday in Philadelphia.
Four cities in four days. I’d say that hasn’t happened since Satchel Paige’s barnstorming days.*
*This leads to a fascinating point — it probably would be to the Phillies advantage to lose to the Braves Sunday. If they lose, there’s a chance for this three-team, two-game playoff, which could utterly wreck the rotation of the team facing the Phillies in the playoffs. Baseball should not have a system where LOSING is better for a team than WINNING. But we’re in uncharted territory here.
Oh, it’s a cavalcade of fun in baseball these days, and the main reason is that these San Diego Padres simply refuse to accept the general consensus that they’re simply not good enough to keep winning. The Padres, you will recall, lost 10 games in a row when they were leading the National League West by 6 1/2 games — and I’d say more people were surprised by the 6 1/2 game lead than the 10-game losing streak. These Padres — the great Adrian Gonzalez excepted — have an anemic offense. They have pitched very well, but the rotation and bullpen are not exactly loaded with big names. Coming into this series, they lost three out of four to a playing-for-nothing-but-pride Cubs team. The expectation is that the Giants playing at home in front of hungry fans would put them out of their misery quickly.
But … no. Friday night’s game was about a great matchup between two great players, San Francisco pitcher Matt Cain and Adrian Gonzalez — Gonzalez won, he turned on a fastball, set it soaring for a three-run homer, and the Padres won.
Saturday’s game was sketchier. The Padres made a serious base-running blunder. The Giants manager got tossed. It wasn’t exactly ballet. The Giants started Barry Zito who — after pitching pretty well much of the season and winning a little bit of hard-earned and grudging respect from San Francisco fans who had written him and his $126 million contract off — has in the last six weeks or so regressed again. He came into the game with the team having lost eight of his previous 10 starts, and his ERA over that stretch was 6.50.
Zito did not have it Saturday either. San Diego’s Chris Denorfia and David Eckstein led off the game with back-to-back singles. At that point both managers decided it was time for a little battle of chess. First up was Padres manager Bud Black, who had his No. 3 hitter Miguel Tejada sacrifice bunt. Tejada IS a double-play machine — he has led the league in double plays five of the last seven years — but sacrifice bunting in the first inning with your No. 3 hitter? Ugh.
At that point, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy topped him by intentionally walking Adrian Gonzalez to load the bases. Yes, Gonzalez IS the Padres best hitter by far and there is a feeling among baseball managers that, if you can help it, you don’t want to let the other team’s best player beat you. But, an intentional walk in the first inning of a crucial game? Ugh.
Bochy’s “Ugh” turned out worse than Black’s. After Ryan Ludwick hit an infield pop-up, Zito walked Yorvit Torrealba and Scott Hairston to give the Padres two runs. I would like to think that was the Baseball Gods rewarding the Padres for a first-inning intentional walk, but more likely it was Zito simply being unable to control his stuff, a common theme since he signed the big money deal. He gave up an unearned run in the third when Pablo Sandoval made a poor throw to second base. And then in the fourth he led off the inning by walking opposing pitcher Tim Stauffer, which ended his game.
“I thought (Zito’s) stuff was fine,” Bruce Bochy said mysteriously after the game before saying, “He just had trouble getting the ball where he wanted.” Yes, well, there was that. Stauffer came around to score to give the Padres a 4-0 lead. And Stauffer pitched well, allowing one run in 6 1/3 innings. The Giants did get the winning run to the plate in the ninth but could not finish off the comeback*. “We’re going to win tomorrow!” Steve Perry yelled from a radio booth.
*If you want details, the Giants were down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth, and they had runners on first and third with only one out. Jose Guillen was at the plate. I have seen a lot of Jose Guillen in Kansas City, a whole lot of Jose Guillen, the good and the not-so-good, and I turned to the reporter next to me and said that it might be a good idea for the Giants to send pinch runner Darren Ford, who was at first base. I felt sure the Giants would do that. Ford has appeared in seven games this year, all as a pinch runner, he is apparently quite swift (he has stolen two out of three bases). But the Giants DID NOT send Ford on the first pitch.
“Uh-oh,” I said. Guillen promptly hit into the easy 6-3 double play that ended the game. The writer looked at me like I was Nostradamus, but really I have just seen Jose Guillen hit a lot.
And now it’s down to today, which could be one of the wilder days in National League history. The Padres have their best starter, Mat Latos, going against San Francisco’s exciting and frustrating Jonathan Sanchez, who is striking out more than a batter per inning and also leading the National League in walks. There are those four crazy scenarios I listed above — in Scenario 2 we could actually have champagne baths in BOTH clubhouses. I don’t know that has ever happened in baseball history. But hey, in this crazy division, as the poet Steve Perry once sad: Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it, anyway you want it. I think that says it all.