From the moment the 2021 schedule was released, the Padres’ 10-game, 10-day trip through Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis loomed as the most daunting challenge in what they hoped might be a special season. It has grown more daunting since, with the Giants and Cardinals having asserted themselves as contenders.
Well, it’s finally here. And with months to build a cushion, knowing full well the grueling nature of their September, the Padres’ playoff position is as tenuous as it could possibly be.
Entering the series opener Friday night at Dodger Stadium, San Diego holds a one-game edge over the Reds in the race for the second National League Wild Card spot. The Phillies, Cardinals and Mets remain in the picture, as well.
"They're definitely playoff games," said Padres right-hander Chris Paddack. "It's not often you have 10 games like this. ... It's make or break. We've got to win series."
Considering the quality of the opposition and the fact the Padres will be playing on 10 consecutive days, it's undoubtedly one of the toughest trips in franchise history. Considering the standings, and what it could mean for the organization, it's arguably the most important trip in franchise history, too.
Let's break it all down:
How we got here
The trip has loomed all season, but for much of the year, it appeared the Padres would have enough of a cushion to withstand it.
That's no longer the case. Two months ago, the Padres were 15 games above .500. Then, in what was supposed to be the soft underbelly of their schedule, they went 21-27.
"We haven't played our best baseball yet," said manager Jayce Tingler.
The Padres faced some obstacles (including a few of their own making). They didn't add a starting pitcher at the Trade Deadline, then saw Paddack and Yu Darvish land on the injured list in August. Their bullpen, overtaxed without the requisite length from the rotation, was the best in baseball through four months and has floundered since.
In the meantime, the Reds, Cardinals and Phillies pounced. At the Trade Deadline, the Padres held a five-game lead on the Reds and 7 1/2 on the next-closest competition. That lead has almost vanished.
The Padres are going to take the best shot from all three opponents on this trip, with the Dodgers and Giants vying for a division crown and the Cardinals trying to reel in San Diego.
"The teams we're playing are all in the hunt," said Padres shortstop Jake Cronenworth. "These are big games for them, too. Dodger Stadium, San Francisco and St. Louis -- all those stadiums will have a ton of energy. It's going to be fun."
To a man, the Padres have chosen to view their three-city trek as "playoff baseball." Then again, it's not often that any team plays so many important games in a row without a single off-day mixed in.
That's a serious grind, with repercussions on the players playing those games -- the pitching staff in particular.
"If your expectation is to win 10 of 10 games, you're setting yourself up for some failure," said outfielder Wil Myers. "You just need to go out and play good baseball every day -- hit with runners in scoring position, pitch well, play good defense. Take care of those things, and you look up, you'll be 7-3 on the road trip."
Reasons for optimism
OK, so these 10 games will be extremely difficult to navigate. The good news? The Padres are as healthy as they've been in months, and they've had a handful of off-days to reset their rotation and give their starters some extra rest before the stretch run.
The Padres go Musgrove-Paddack-Snell in Los Angeles this weekend. An off-day on Thursday allowed them to bump Jake Arrieta to the back of their rotation, meaning he won't have to take the ball until Tuesday in San Francisco. That also means that if Arrieta struggles against the Giants, they could skip his next turn and finish with a bullpen day (with an off-day afterward).
It's also worth noting that the Padres have been better against winning opposition (37-30) than teams that are .500 or worse (37-35).
Biggest trip in Padres history?
"It's probably the most exciting and most anticipated road trip I've been on as a Padre, which is pretty cool," said Myers, the team’s longest-tenured player. "Should be a lot of fun. This is why you play in the big leagues -- to play these kinds of games late in a season."
Hard to argue that this is the Padres' biggest in at least 10 years. But is it their biggest regular-season road trip ever?
In their 1984 and '98 pennant-winning seasons, the Padres built comfortable leads that were never in jeopardy during the season's final month. There are some interesting trips sprinkled through the 1996, 2005 and '06 division-title seasons, but none with the standings quite so tight.
Before this one, the most impactful multi-city trips took place in September 1989, 2007 and 2010, all seasons in which the Padres fell just short. The final week of the ’07 season – a 4-3 trip through San Francisco and Milwaukee, when 5-2 would’ve clinched – stings the most. But did any of those teams have the World Series-ceiling that this team claims to have?
Ultimately, no. And perhaps this team doesn’t either. Chances are, we’ll find out one way or another on this road trip.
“These are 10 of the biggest games of the season,” said Cronenworth. “If the outcome goes in our favor, I think it can definitely springboard us.”
So … biggest road trip in franchise history? It’s up to the Padres to make it so.