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Once a weakness, SD 'pen now a strength

@AJCassavell
September 10, 2020

While the baseball world was captivated by Fernando Tatis Jr.’s brilliance, Manny Machado’s steadiness and A.J. Preller’s maneuvering, the Padres quietly turned their biggest weakness into a strength. They entered the season believing wholeheartedly that they owned one of the Majors' best bullpens. But when the San Diego’s record dipped

While the baseball world was captivated by Fernando Tatis Jr.’s brilliance, Manny Machado’s steadiness and A.J. Preller’s maneuvering, the Padres quietly turned their biggest weakness into a strength.

They entered the season believing wholeheartedly that they owned one of the Majors' best bullpens. But when the San Diego’s record dipped below .500 for the only time this season on Aug. 16, the team's relief ERA sat at 6.48.

Since then, the Padres are 17-5, and they've gotten contributions from everywhere on the roster -- including their once-maligned ‘pen. In that span, San Diego relievers have a combined 2.98 ERA, which ranks third in the Majors, and a 2.93 FIP, which ranks first.

"This bullpen is special, and it’s had a chance to be special for a long time," righty reliever Emilio Pagán said. "It's had a chance to be special for a long time. It's starting to show."

Pagán was activated from the injured list on Thursday, adding yet another formidable weapon to the mix. He'd spent the minimum 10 days on the IL nursing biceps inflammation. (Fellow right-hander Taylor Williams was optioned to clear space.)

"I was trying to work my way through it and hopefully get to the offseason before I needed the rest," Pagán said. "But ultimately, the staff ... determined it needed to happen now for me to be 100 percent for a playoff team."

At 28-17, the Padres sure look like a playoff team, and they've suddenly got a playoff-caliber bullpen, too. Lefty Drew Pomeranz and righty Trevor Rosenthal have established themselves as the team's go-to back-end weapons. They've made the biggest difference in the Padres' turnaround.

Pomeranz -- who hasn't allowed a run in 15 appearances this season -- missed time early in the year with a left shoulder strain. Rosenthal, meanwhile, was acquired from Kansas City ahead of the Trade Deadline and has been equally dominant across four scoreless outings with San Diego.

But the bullpen's turnaround isn't limited to those two. Tim Hill hasn’t allowed a run in 10 appearances. Pierce Johnson hasn’t allowed a run in nine. Pagan, who started slowly, has a 1.62 ERA in six outings since that Aug. 17 turnaround began.

It should give the Padres plenty of options to eat high-leverage postseason innings -- though manager Jayce Tingler was cautious to avoid speculating on his postseason roster plans.

"I don't think we'll do that until that magic number is at zero, until we're in," Tingler said. "Once that point happens, then we'll start talking about other things. Do we believe that's going to happen? Absolutely."

Just because Tingler doesn't want to speculate doesn't mean we can't. Here's an early look at where things stand in the race for bullpen spots on the Padres' postseason roster:

Definitely in: Rosenthal, Pomeranz, Pagán

Probably in: Hill, Strahm, Johnson

Fighting for a spot: Dan Altavilla, Adrian Morejon, Craig Stammen, Javy Guerra, Luis Patiño, David Bednar, Michel Baez, Luis Perdomo, Williams

Wild cards: Austin Adams, José Castillo, a leftover starting pitcher (perhaps Garrett Richards, Chris Paddack or Zach Davies)

Adams (ACL surgery) and Castillo (lat strain) might both return this month. If they flash the same stuff they had before their injuries, they'd almost certainly have a place on the postseason roster.

That could leave a group of a dozen relievers fighting for only a place or two on the Padres’ first postseason roster in 14 years. That's exactly how they drew it up: They've got options.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.