A first for SD since 2010: 1st place alone in mid-June

June 16th, 2022

CHICAGO -- The Padres, despite their injuries and despite their flaws, just keep finding ways to win baseball games.

And, lately, all that winning has carried them somewhere they haven’t been in a very long time: first place in the National League West in mid-June.

On Thursday afternoon, the Padres completed a four-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field, their first such sweep in 12 years. They did so with a 6-4 victory in which right-hander Joe Musgrove tossed seven innings of two-run ball, becoming the first pitcher to open a season with 12 straight quality starts since Corey Kluber in 2018.

• Box score

Having entered the day percentage points behind idle Los Angeles, the Padres (41-24) moved above the Dodgers (39-23) and into sole possession of first place with the win – the first time they’ve held a division lead so late in the season since 2010.

So how did these Padres – who finished 79-83 last season and lost their superstar shortstop to injury as this season approached – find their way into first place? In one of the toughest divisions in baseball, no less? Here are five reasons why:

1. A dominant, deep rotation

The Padres go seven deep in their starting rotation, and that depth is already paying major dividends. For one, they haven’t been forced to scramble when Mike Clevinger and Blake Snell have landed on the IL. They’ve also been able to space out their starters, which, in turn, has led to fresher arms. Musgrove’s start marked the 16th time a Padres pitcher has completed seven innings this season, the most in baseball.

“The extra rest is allowing us to go deeper into games, ultimately saving the bullpen,” Musgrove said. “It’s building confidence for us. By the time the end of the year comes, when we need our starters to be strong and healthy and be able to get deep into the games, that’s something we’ve been doing.”

Musgrove has been doing that more than anyone. He’s an early favorite for the National League Cy Young Award, having posted a 1.59 ERA. He recorded a season-high nine strikeouts on Thursday, as the Padres won for the 11th time in his 12 starts this year.

Behind him, Yu Darvish and MacKenzie Gore have been dominant. Snell, Clevinger, Sean Manaea and Nick Martinez have shown flashes as well.

It’s quite a rotation. The Padres, evidently, learned their lesson from a 2021 season in which they crashed and burned largely because they didn’t have enough starting pitching. Now, they have an overabundance.

2. MVP-caliber Machado

From the moment Fernando Tatis Jr. went down with a fractured left wrist, the Padres insisted it would take a team effort to replace his production. But if there was one person who would be asked to shoulder the biggest burden, it was always going to be Manny Machado.

He has delivered and then some, hitting .328 with a .937 OPS while playing his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense. Entering play Thursday, Machado was tied for the Major League lead in fWAR -- then he pounded out three more hits.

On Wednesday, Machado put himself in some elite company, becoming just the 17th player to record 1,500 hits and 250 home runs before turning 29. He’s now more than halfway to two of the sport’s signature achievements.

“Winning ballgames is the most important thing for me,” Machado said. “The milestones will come with winning baseball games.”

3. An offense that's deeper than you think

Machado has led the charge. But the rest of the Padres’ offense is more potent than meets the eye. Sure, they’ve struggled at Petco Park. But everyone has. By basic park factor, Petco has played as the toughest ballpark for offense this year.

On the road, the Padres’ bats have been more than capable, as they showed this week in Chicago, scoring 41 runs in 36 innings. The biggest reason for their offensive resurgence comes at the top of the order, where Jurickson Profar and Jake Cronenworth have formed a formidable 1-2 punch, setting the table for Machado. Both have sneaky All-Star cases.

Beyond the top three, some of the numbers aren’t great. But that’s a product of a brutal start. Luke Voit and Jorge Alfaro have begun to provide some thump behind Machado. Since the start of June, Trent Grisham has added some tough at-bats at the bottom of the order.

“We went through a really tough stretch earlier where we went through two straight weeks or three weeks of just playoff teams,” Voit said. “We found ways to win games in those, even though we went through some tough pitching. I think the [offense is] finally clicking. It’s summertime. It was just a matter of time.”

4. Organizational contributions

How do the best organizations do it? Well, they have their Machados and their Musgroves. But they also have their Nomar Mazaras.

The 27-year-old outfielder signed a Minor League deal with the Padres during Spring Training. When Wil Myers landed on the IL, the club promoted Mazara and handed him regular reps in right field. He’s thrived, hitting .350 in his first 12 games, including 2-for-3 with a homer on Thursday.

“To be able to help this team with whatever I can, whenever they put me out there, it’s an honor,” Mazara said. “Getting the callup, I’m showing them that I’m ready again, that my swing is right.”

It’s not just Mazara, either. Kyle Tyler pitched four scoreless this week. Reiss Knehr worked 4 2/3 in a relief gem after he was called up for Saturday’s doubleheader.

“It takes a full 40[-man roster] and sometimes more than that,” said acting manager Ryan Flaherty. “For the good teams in the league, it’s not just the top-end guys that are contributing. We’ve had guys out. It’s even more important now that these role players are contributing and helping us win.”

5. Steadiness, top to bottom

The 2021 Padres ended in disaster. But they sure were fun at times. They ripped off long winning streaks, interspersed with long losing streaks, making for a roller coaster of a year that ended in freefall.

These are not the 2021 Padres. These are Bob Melvin's Padres (and even when Melvin has been absent, his presence remains). Only once this season have these Padres lost more than two games in a row. They responded to that four-game losing streak in St. Louis and Milwaukee by winning seven of eight.

For the most part, however, it's been steadier than that. (It helps that when they’ve lost a game, the Padres generally have had another quality starter ready to give them another quality start.)

It's probably telling that when they moved into a tie for first place on Monday, no one in the Padres’ clubhouse even seemed aware.

“We’re just worried about us,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer. “We stick to the stuff we’re good at, and we believe we’ll be on top of those standings at the end of the year.”