Giants poised for late NL West run

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 10, 2010

Snap judgments are always dangerous in baseball, even in September, when the cloud of 162 games finally starts to clear.

I’m not going to bury the Padres, not after their 7-3 loss to the Giants on Thursday night, not when they still lead the NL West by one game.

But the difficulties facing San Diego are evident:

• A rotation weakening behind right-hander Mat Latos and lefty Clayton Richard.

• An offense ranking 11th in the NL runs per game.

• A schedule looming as the most difficult of the three NL West contenders, starting with three more games against the surging Giants at Petco Park this weekend (MLB on FOX, Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

The Giants, winners of seven of their last nine, matched their season-high with four homers Thursday night — one each by Aubrey Huff, Juan Uribe, Buster Posey and Pat Burrell. One Padres observer said the homers were four of the longest balls hit at Petco all season.

Meanwhile, a rival scout in attendance noted that the Padres’ demeanor changed after the Giants took a 1-0 lead in the first and extended it to 3-0 in the third and 6-1 in the fifth.

“I saw a team panic,” the scout said. “They fell behind and seized up. It looked like the wind came right out of them.”

The Giants, in contrast, are a swaggering, rollicking bunch, right down to — ahem — Huff’s red thong underwear. Huff paraded through the clubhouse in his nearly naked glory afterward. Burrell, as winning pitcher Matt Cain spoke to reporters, jokingly asked him for a prediction.

The last time these teams met, Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez had predicted a sweep of the Padres. Cain, naturally, wanted no part of such fodder.

“I’m not a good predictor,” he said, smiling.

Frankly, no team in the West is good enough to be brash — not the Padres, who somehow have held first place since June 18, and not the Rockies, who are 29-42 on the road.

The Giants, even after adding Burrell, Jose Guillen and Cody Ross, remain in the lower half of the NL in runs. Their defense, particularly in the outfield corners, can be an adventure. But their first postseason appearance since 2003 is within reach.

“They’ve got an unbelievable lineup over there, especially with some of the moves they’ve made,” said Padres right-hander Jon Garland, who allowed three of the Giants’ homers.

“It’s like they just keep stacking and stacking and stacking. They’re hungry. They haven’t been to the playoffs off for a long time. They want to do some things.”

So, obviously, do the Padres.

Their recent 10-game losing streak was the longest by a team in first place since the 1932 Pirates. They rebounded by sweeping three straight from the Dodgers at Petco, but whether they truly recovered remains to be seen.

The Dodgers are a fading, sub-.500 fourth-place club. Thirteen of the Padres’ remaining 23 games are against teams with winning records — and 13 are on the road.

The Giants, by contrast, play nine of their final 21 games against winning clubs, the Rockies 10 of 22. After this weekend, the Giants will have only six road games remaining. Ten of the Rockies’ final 16 will be on the road.

The Giants, then, appear in the best position to win the division. The Rockies, 3 1/2 games back, appear capable of repeating their 2007 miracle finish if they can keep winning away from Coors Field.

The Padres?

Tough to say.

Garland, after the ninth loss of the team’s 10-game streak, said, “We’re on our heels. I’ve been on teams in playoff races before where you’d have someone in your face if this was happening.”

No one was in Garland’s face after Thursday night’s game, but he was plenty hard on himself. Turning to an initial group of five reporters, he said, “I wouldn’t want to talk to me, either.”

The Rockies chased Garland after 4-2/3 innings in his previous start. The Giants hit him even harder Thursday night, scoring six runs in just five innings.

Again, it was one game, just one game with 23 to play. Richard starts Friday against fellow left-hander Sanchez, a fairly even matchup. If the Padres win, they will be no worse than tied for first at the end of this series.

Righty Tim Stauffer, making only his second start since May 9, faces rookie left-hander Madison Bumgarner on Saturday. The finale on Sunday is a potential classic — Latos against Giants righty Tim Lincecum.

Pennant races often have daily twists, but certain trends cannot be ignored. The Padres have scored just 36 runs in their last 16 games. Right fielder Ryan Ludwick, their biggest trade addition and No. 3 hitter, needed to go 2-for-3 with a two-run homer in the ninth inning to raise his batting average with the Padres to .225.

The Pads miss injured center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. and utility man Jerry Hairston Jr., but neither is a major offensive contributor. When the Giants led, 4-1, I texted a scout and said their lead appeared insurmountable. The scout replied, “2-1 might be enough!”

It has been that way all season, but the Padres have clawed, scrapped, endured. No one should discount them, not when they remain in first place. But as always, the final verdict will come only after 162 games.

If the Padres hold on, their achievement will be that much more remarkable. Their greatest challenge lies ahead.

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