SAN DIEGO – For the first time in 14 seasons, the Padres are playoff bound. The next wait won't last nearly so long. They’re intent on making October baseball a habit in San Diego.
At the core of it, that fact is what makes the 2020 Padres such a delight. They spent years in the National League West cellar, often an afterthought on the sport’s landscape.
They're an afterthought no more. With one of the sport’s youngest teams – and a roster that should remain mostly in place over the next few years – the 2020 postseason could be the Padres’ coming out party.
With superstars Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, ace-caliber starters Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger, grand slams and bat flips galore and sleek new uniforms, the Padres became must-see TV this season.
On Wednesday, they'll embark on their first playoff run since 2006, the culmination of a vision set forth by general manager A.J. Preller half a decade ago when he began overhauling an aging and languishing roster.
"Over the last four or five years building this thing, it's been thousands of hours of conversations, thousands of hours being in a car, on a plane, going after different types of players, just to see this team in the playoffs," Preller said. "That's what we do this for."
How do they advance out of the Wild Card Series?
The best way is to ensure that Clevinger and Lamet are healthy. The Padres' top two starters are question marks ahead of Wednesday's opener against the Cardinals. Lamet exited his Friday start with right biceps tightness, the same day Clevinger received a cortisone injection for a right-elbow impingement.
Lamet is still in line to start Game 1, but the Padres will learn more when he throws his bullpen session on Monday afternoon. Clevinger could return for Game 3. It goes without saying that two ace-caliber starting pitchers would make a huge impact in a three-game series.
But the Padres are confident they can roll with the punches either way. Their offense has been one of the best in baseball, and their bullpen is deep.
"Guys in that clubhouse are still prepared, if they aren't available to play, to go out there and play Padres baseball and be ready to win games," said Zach Davies, who is slated to start Game 2 but could slide to Game 1 in Lamet’s absence. "It's good to hear, personally, that they're all right. Hopefully they can bounce back pretty quick and be available for the Wild Card Series."
What is the blueprint for a championship run?
It's been 24 years since any Padre has received a first-place vote for the National League MVP Award. Tatis and Machado might both receive them in 2020.
The formula for a championship starts there. If the Padres' two MVPs play like MVPs, they're a force to be reckoned with. The rest of the offense falls into place behind them.
Of course, the nature of the 2020 postseason is such that teams need to win both short series and long series with no off-days. If the Padres can advance past the three-game Wild Card Series, their pitching depth will be tested. But they think their pitching depth stacks up with any team in the league.
That is, of course, contingent upon the health of Lamet and Clevinger. But since Aug. 17, the Padres' bullpen been the best in baseball, according to fWAR. Newcomers Trevor Rosenthal and Drew Pomeranz have anchored the back end in a big way.
"We're going to need a lot of guys," said Padres manager Jayce Tingler. "And that's been our story this year. It's been a lot of guys -- whether it's starting pitching, guys out of the bullpen, guys coming in off the bench and different starters throughout the year that have helped us win games.
"That's been our story, and I hope that remains our story going through these playoffs."
What is one reason for concern?
Without question, the injuries to Lamet and Clevinger are the biggest cause for concern right now. A week ago, the Padres viewed them as front-line horses who would carry them through the playoffs.
But let's dig deeper than that. The Padres' offense was a juggernaut in late August and early September. Over the season's final two weeks, it dropped off significantly.
In that time, the Padres posted a .219/.296/.384 slash line entering play Sunday with an 85 wRC+ that ranked 18th in baseball. Essentially, the 2020 Padres turned into the 2018 Padres for two weeks.
There are mitigating circumstances, of course. San Diego tinkered with its lineup and used the final two weeks to get injured veterans Eric Hosmer and Tommy Pham back into a groove.
The Padres ended their season with three straight victories over the Giants, and they briefly looked like "Slam Diego" again. If they can re-kindle that version, it's a World Series-caliber offense.