ST. LOUIS -- The 1-1 pitch that Josh Hader threw to Tommy Edman was essentially right where Hader wanted it. Near the outside corner. At the top of the strike zone. Major League hitters tend to swing right through that pitch, and Hader has the miniscule ERA to prove it.
But Edman didn’t. Edman got his barrel to Hader’s 97.2 mph fastball and launched it toward the Cardinals’ bullpen. Hader dropped his head for a moment, then he turned to look. When the ball landed beyond the right-center-field wall at Busch Stadium, the Padres' closer dropped into a crouch, then stalked toward the dugout. Almost none of the defenders behind him moved.
Even for a team that has found every way to lose close games this season, this was stunning. It also brought the starkest of realities.
With Wednesday’s gut punch of a 5-4 loss, the Padres fell 10 games below .500 and 7 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot with only 28 to play. A week ago, it was fair to hold onto some modicum of hope for a late postseason push. But after a 1-5 road trip through Milwaukee and St. Louis, it’s gotten exponentially harder to do so.
“The road gets tougher and tougher every day now,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “... We expected to pick up a couple games here and didn’t do it. Disappointing for everybody.”
San Diego’s playoff odds have been reduced to 1.1%, according to FanGraphs. Barring a miracle September, the Padres will be forced to grapple with the realities of their 2023 season and all that went wrong.
“You don’t stop fighting until the end of the year, whether it’s going our way or not,” Hader said. “None of these guys in here are quitters. So we’re going to keep fighting until the end and see where that brings us.”
Wherever it brings them, it will almost certainly be short of their lofty preseason goals. The Padres built a roster full of superstars with one of the highest payrolls in team history. They unabashedly aimed to bring the franchise its first World Series.
Then it all went wrong, in large part because the Padres couldn’t win games like this one. Wednesday’s loss dropped them to 6-22 in one-run games. (Even just a .500 record in those contests would have made a huge difference in the race for the final NL Wild Card spot.)
A night before, the Padres fell to 0-11 in extras, one loss shy of the 1969 Expos, who are the only team to play in at least 11 extra-inning games and not win any of them. Tuesday’s game, too, ended with Edman walking off Hader, this one a single into the left-field corner.
“It's baseball, right,” said Hader. “You execute the pitch that you think you should pitch. Sometimes it goes the opposite way. … Yesterday he got me on an inside fastball that was in-in. Then up and away, he got me on that one. End of the day, you tip your cap.”
Indeed, maybe the credit belongs to Edman, who grew up in San Diego and played high school ball at La Jolla Country Day School. Edman beat Hader twice with pitches that Hader seemed comfortable with. (And Hader is generally self-critical when he feels like he missed his spot.)
Still, the ending was particularly cruel. The Padres’ poor record in close games has largely followed a formula: They haven’t gotten big hits, and their bullpen hasn’t been able to get the ball to Hader.
On Wednesday, they got that big hit -- Juan Soto’s go-ahead, two-out single in the top of the seventh inning. Then, they got five pivotal outs from Scott Barlow, giving Hader a one-run lead entering the ninth.
And, sure, the Padres have lost close games all season. But they generally haven’t lost this game.
“It felt different,” Melvin said.
Hader entered play Wednesday with a 0.78 ERA. Not counting automatic runners in extra innings, he’d blown only two saves all year. And then …
“Any time Josh blows the save, it’s stunning,” Melvin said. “I mean, the guy’s probably the best in the game.”
Afterward, the Padres packed their things in a quieter-than-usual clubhouse, set for a journey back to San Diego, where a city full of hopeful fans has packed Petco Park regularly all season. Amid the hush, it was suggested to Soto that maybe, the way gut-punch losses like this one have piled up, it just isn’t the Padres’ year.
“We try our best,” Soto said. “The things aren’t going our way. Like you say, it might be that it’s not our time.”