Padres proving doubters wrong

I admire Jonathan Sanchez. I really do.

In addition to throwing a no-hitter last year, he isn’t afraid to declare how confident he is in the San Francisco Giants.

“We’re going to play San Diego, and we’re going to beat them three times,” Sanchez told reporters this week. “If we get to first place, we’re not going to look back.”

Strong words, considering the Giants are 1-7 against the Padres this year.

But this was healthy hubris — in contrast to the Brandon Phillips nonsense earlier this week. Players are supposed to believe that their team will win.

And I, for one, happen to be in partial agreement with Sanchez’s view of the National League West race.

I do not believe we will see a sweep either way in this weekend’s showdown at AT&T Park (MLB on FOX, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET). But I have touted the Giants as a possible pennant winner since spring training. I’m too stubborn to switch bandwagons now, particularly with second-place San Francisco trailing San Diego by only 2-1/2 games.

But I wonder if Sanchez, who starts Friday, is aware that the Padres specialize in making their critics look foolish.

I should know. I’m one of them.

On July 20, I wrote that the Padres were “about to collapse.” That hasn’t happened. Not yet, at least. They are 13-9 since.

I was wrong.

In the same column, I stated that the Braves were on their way to October. At the time, Atlanta had the biggest division lead in the majors. No longer. In fact, the Phillies have closed to within two games. Nate McLouth is in the minors, Chipper Jones is done for the year, and Roy Halladay can smell his first playoff start.

I don’t feel like a complete buffoon, because the Padres’ division lead has shrunk since the column ran. (It was four games at the time.) Still, the fact remains that San Diego entered Friday with the best winning percentage in the majors outside of the Yankees and Rays.

It’s impossible to hold that distinction while in the midst of a nosedive.

So, a tip of my cap to Bud Black, Adrian Gonzalez, Heath Bell … and all the other guys I can’t think of right now (I kid, I kid).

In all seriousness, this is a good time to again pose The Question.

How, exactly, are the Padres doing this?

Simple. They still have the best team ERA in the major leagues, and Gonzalez is driving in runs.

The crux of my Flopping Friars Theorem was that their pitching couldn’t possibly be as good in the second half as it was in the first. I based my conclusion on the belief that the starters who are in their first full major-league seasons — Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, Wade LeBlanc — were about to fade.

So, let’s look at their numbers since the break:

  • Latos: 2-1, 1.96 ERA, four starts.
  • Richard: 3-1, 5.93 ERA, five starts.
  • LeBlanc: 2-3, 4.15 ERA, five starts.

As a group, they still are providing this team with opportunities to win. And the two veteran starters, Jon Garland and Kevin Correia, have combined to win four games this month.

Meanwhile, Bell’s bullpen has been as reliable as ever. The Padres’ bullpen has lost the fewest games of any bullpen in the NL. Luke Gregerson’s stuff is staying sharper than I thought it would (His ERA since the All-Star break is 0.71). Another key development: Mike Adams is back from the disabled list.

First-year general manager Jed Hoyer did his part by finding veteran help for the outfield (Ryan Ludwick) and infield (Miguel Tejada) in July. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hoyer add one veteran arm this month — although it’s possible that Chris Young could come off the disabled list and fill that void.

Of course, I don’t believe the Padres are a perfect team. They certainly miss David Eckstein, who is still on the DL. They rank among the bottom third of major-league teams in home runs. Some of that is because of Petco Park. But I wonder if the power shortage will result in a lot of tense 3-2 and 2-1 losses in September.

Still, the Padres have built credibility by coming this far. They certainly deserve more respect than I gave them last month. I’m beginning to wonder if I will need to write a full mea culpa when the Padres and Giants next meet in the Bay Area — for the final series of the regular season.

For now, it is Sanchez’s turn to be proven right or wrong. His chance for direct influence comes tonight. And he should exercise caution. The Padres are more than what they seem.