Padres play so well that Gonzalez is safe at home
It's funny how nobody talks anymore about the San Diego Padres having to trade Adrian Gonzalez.
That's what happens when a team that was picked to wallow at the bottom of the NL West instead turns it around and plays so well that at times it has had the best record in the NL itself.
Two summers removed from a miserable 99-loss season, and with an opening day payroll of $37.8 million, second-lowest in the majors, the surprising Padres have led the division since late April thanks to pitching, defense and a large dose of confidence. All that makes up for a sometimes painful lack of offense at spacious Petco Park, where the Padres seem to thrive on late-inning, small-ball rallies.
The Padres don't plan to disappear anytime soon as they pursue their first division crown since winning consecutive titles in 2005-06. Despite all those offseason rumors, Gonzalez, their three-time All-Star slugger, is expected to still be with them for the stretch run in the tightly bunched division. San Diego (50-35) led Colorado and Los Angeles by three games going into the final weekend before the All-Star break.
The way most people envisioned this season playing out, the Padres would be so far back by July 31 that they'd trade Gonzalez, perhaps to the Boston Red Sox, for multiple prospects. Last year, they shipped out Jake Peavy, the 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner, at the deadline.
''I think it's a moot point at this stage,'' Padres co-owner Jeff Moorad said. ''Might it revive itself at some point in the future? Of course. But if this team continues to play as it has, that's the last thing on our mind.
''As the players correctly assessed in the spring, that was their position - 'We play well, this is going to be moot,' '' Moorad said.
''Anytime you have a player of his caliber, he means so much to this team,'' third baseman Chase Headley said about Gonzalez, who grew up in the San Diego area and is hitting .300 with 17 homers and 54 RBIs. ''It's going to be a sad day if he ever does leave here. For now, it's nice to kind of silence that and not have to deal with it. Since I've been here, we've always had, it seems like, one guy who's been on the block come the All-Star break.''
Rather than plot Gonzalez's exit now - they still have to decide his long-term status beyond the $5.5 million option they hold on the two-time Gold Glove first baseman for 2011 - Moorad and first-year general manager Jed Hoyer had breakfast last Sunday to discuss the possibility of adding a hitter or pitcher for the stretch run.
''Suffice it to say that we're open-minded,'' Moorad said. ''We don't feel we have to do anything drastic, but we're certainly open to the right deal if one comes our way.''
The Padres moved into first place on April 20 and have been out of the top spot a total of only three days since.
Still, they've found it hard to convince others that they're for real.
Gonzalez was the only Padres player named to the NL All-Star roster. There wasn't one representative from a pitching staff that leads the majors with a 3.11 ERA. Closer Heath Bell was added to the NL roster to replace Milwaukee right-hander Yovani Gallardo. But the Padres felt Bell and right-hander Mat Latos should have been on the roster from the outset.
The 22-year-old Latos improved to 10-4 with a 2.45 ERA with a 7-1 win at Washington on Thursday night. It's the 14th time in franchise history a pitcher has had 10 wins before the All-Star break.
Tony Gwynn Jr. likens the All-Star snub to pouring gas on a fire.
''You kind of had a little bonfire built up in the spring and it's been burning a long time now, and we have this gasoline now,'' said Gwynn, the center fielder and leadoff batter. ''We had some earlier from everybody picking us at the bottom, below teams that I felt like we were clearly better than in our division last year. So this is just some more fuel. We're going to use it.''
The genesis for this season came late last summer. After the Padres wallowed in last place for much of 2009, manager Bud Black and some veterans challenged the many younger players to step up and prove they belonged in the big leagues. The Padres responded by going 37-25 to finish the season, leapfrogging the Arizona Diamondbacks to finish fourth.
''You have a young team like that and you have some success, and it wasn't like we were facing bottom-feeders at the end of the season. We were playing teams that were in contention to be in the playoffs,'' said Gwynn, whose Hall of Famer father played on the first three division-winning teams in Padres history and on their only two World Series teams. ''I think naturally you go into the next season a little more confident. All 25 guys came in believing that we can win our division. I think it's showing right now the way we've been playing.''
A lot of so-called experts didn't think the Padres could sustain their momentum from late last season.
''The most telling stat that I've seen is we finished the season 37-25 last year, and we started off this season 37-25,'' Moorad said. ''To some extent there's no better indicator of consistency than the last couple of months of last year against the first couple of this. To me that tells a significant story about the club maturing and finding its comfort zone.''
The Padres are starting to get noticed.
''San Diego's playing incredible,'' said Aubrey Huff of the San Francisco Giants. ''You keep seeing them winning. They've got great pitching and they don't score that many runs. We keep thinking they're going to fall out of their tree. This is the time of the year you say, 'They're good.' You can't call them lucky anymore.''
Right-hander Mike Adams, part of the best bullpen in the majors, feels there are still more skeptics than believers so he recently gave his teammates T-shirts that say, ''Believe!''
''Everybody still expects us to fall apart,'' Adams said. ''You hear, 'The pitching's not going to hold up, the hitting is not going to get any runs.' It's almost a kind of us-against-the-world feeling every now and then. That's kind of the point of the shirts, to believe in ourselves and believe in each other.
''We haven't done anything yet,'' Adams added. ''Yes, we've been in first place most of the year, but if we're not in first place at the first of October, it's not going to make any difference, no matter how well we did in the first part of the season.''
The Padres have led the division despite losing 6-foot-10 right-hander Chris Young to a strained right shoulder after just one start and having left fielder Kyle Blanks go into a deep slump before going on the disabled list on May 20 with a strained right elbow.
Young is eager to return.
''It says that maybe you have a lot more talented pitchers than me on the staff,'' Young said about the Padres' success without him.
In the second half, the Padres would like to hit better than their .249 average and improve their home attendance average of 23,738. The Padres might not hit well overall, but they hit well at the right times.
''Hopefully as we get toward the end of the season people will start feeling a little bit more comfortable wanting to spend their money to come out and watch us play,'' Gwynn said. ''It's a good brand of baseball to watch, I'll tell you that.''
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.