It’s nearly September, and there’s suddenly an awful lot of clarity in the National League Wild Card race.
For the Padres, the formula looks pretty simple: They need to stave off the Brewers or catch the Phillies. If they do one of those two things, they’re in the playoffs.
Easier said than done.
The schedule is about to get tougher, and San Diego still has some serious question marks that need to be answered. So what does the path to the postseason look like for the Padres? Here’s a look at how they get there:
1. The next two weekends are critical
Much has been made of the schedule disparity between the Padres and Brewers down the stretch. And, yes, the Padres' schedule is notably tougher.
But that schedule-strength gap is tied almost entirely to the next two weekends. The Padres play the Dodgers twice -- first in Los Angeles, then in San Diego. At the same time, the Brewers will be playing the D-backs and Reds.
Remove those two weekends, and the remaining schedules for both teams are practically even. If the Padres were to wake up on Sept. 12 still in playoff position, well, you’d like their chances from there.
It’ll be a tall task. The Dodgers have won eight of 10 matchups against the Padres this season, outscoring them 55-18. And, sure, every time the Padres play the Dodgers, the stakes feel high. But these series might legitimately determine the Padres’ playoff fortunes. With multiple off-days over the next two weeks, the Padres can align their rotation and reset their bullpen for those Dodgers series.
Somehow, some way, they need to reverse their recent fortunes against L.A.
2. There’s no room for error at closer
The timing of Josh Hader’s struggles couldn’t be much worse.
“We only have so many games left,” manager Bob Melvin said. “It’d be nice to get him rolling, because we got him for a reason, and that’s to close out games.”
I don’t claim to have the answer. I don't know how the Padres get Hader pitching like himself again. I don't know the best plan for his workload. I don't know who should fill the closer role in Hader's absence.
But I know the Padres better get it right.
The nature of their current predicament is such that they cannot afford to lose winnable games. Those games will almost certainly decide the Wild Card race.
At a different juncture on the calendar, the Padres could afford to take some time for trial and error at the back end of their bullpen. But with 32 games left on the schedule -- each of them paramount -- they don’t really have time for that.
3. Tough decisions ahead
Yes, every game counts the same. But the factors that went into the Padres’ decision-making in April and May are very different from the decisions they’re making right now.
Early in the season, the big picture took precedent. The Padres, for instance, used a six-man rotation for much of the season’s first half. They wanted to keep their starting pitchers fresh. They also gave regular off-days to their starters
But lately, the urgency has ratcheted up in a big way. The long-term goal of reaching the postseason suddenly feels like it’s a short-term goal. That means it’s time for some tough decisions. A couple of examples:
• Jurickson Profar, when he’s at his best, has proven himself a very serviceable leadoff hitter. He works counts and finds his way on base. He’s a pest -- in the best possible way. But lately, the Padres haven’t gotten that version of Profar. Entering play Monday, he was hitting just .223/.310/.311 in August. If the Padres had a comfortable Wild Card lead, there would be absolutely no harm in letting Profar work through some kinks in the leadoff spot. But that lead is not comfortable. As such, the red-hot Ha-Seong Kim has started three of the past four games in the leadoff spot. Profar, meanwhile, needs to earn his way back into that role on an everyday basis.
• What do the Padres do with Sean Manaea and his 7.29 second-half ERA? If they were to stay on turn in the starting rotation, Manaea’s next two starts would come against the Dodgers. (And, as we discussed earlier, those games are pretty darn important.) The Padres have some leeway to manipulate their rotation ahead of those Dodgers series. They have off-days before both series and an off-day after the second series as well. They might not skip Manaea entirely, but there’s at least a possibility that his next outing or two be pushed back.
In short, the Padres need to be treating these games more like playoff games than regular-season games. A month of very high-stakes baseball lies ahead.