It's surprising enough that the San Diego Padres are all alone atop the National League West at baseball's midway point. Factor in the production and consider it without their presumed opening day ace, shortstop, and left fielder, and the feat is even more astounding.
At the All-Star break last year, the Padres were 20 games out of first place. Flash-forward to 2010 and the Padres have a two-game lead in the division.
The roster full of "no-names" has put together the NL's second-best record (51-37), and they have done it with their pitching behind a league's best earned run average (3.25).
After a superb spring training stint, Chris Young was all but slated to be the Padres ace this season. But a severe shoulder injury has kept him from throwing a single pitch this season, while also leaving the 6'10" righty's career in limbo.
When it comes to labeling a starting pitcher who has rose to the occasion in wake of Young's absence, one can nearly take their pick.
The 22-year-old Mat Latos has filled the biggest void.
Latos went from securing the fifth and final spot in the Friar rotation to wrap up spring training, to becoming the most efficient and effective starter during the first half of the season.
The power righty has carved his way to a 10-4 record, including an eighth-best ERA (2.45) and hearty numbers in WHIP (0.97), strikeouts (99), and a league-best opponent's batting average for starting pitchers (.193) in 106 2/3 innings pitched.
For more evidence in favor of his first All-Star appearance, look no further than his last 12 outings: 9-1, 1.45 ERA.
Another staple in the Padres rotation is Clayton Richard, the focal point of the Jake Peavy deadline deal last season. Peavy has been shut down for rest of the season due to a detached lat muscle, making the deal to acquire Richard and three other pitchers appear more and more like a favorable move.
Prior to the injury, Richard (6-4, 3.33 ERA, 90 strikeouts) had more than matched Peavy's (7-6, 4.63 ERA, 93 strikeouts) output.
The other three pitchers in the deal; Aaron Poreda, Adam Russell, and Dexter Carter, still reside in the Padres farm system, with Russell being the only piece with the possibility of cracking the big leagues in the second half.
With how vital the Padres starting pitching has been this season, it is difficult to give higher accolades to any other department than the bullpen.
Trailing the Padres after six innings is the last position opposing teams prefer to be in.
There are a couple reasons Petco Park stops selling alcoholic beverages after the seventh inning. The first, of course, is to assure the safety of fans on their commute home. The other reason is because manager Bud Black has Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams, and Heath Bell for seventh-through-ninth-inning duties.
There have been countless instances when Black could easily stretch Gregerson or Adams out into two innings of work, but Black has kept each reliever to their inning, religiously, and to say it has worked could be the understatement of the season.
Gregerson, the seventh-inning specialist, set a Padres team record for most consecutive batters retired by a reliever (26) and most consecutive batters faced without a walk by a reliever (110). He also leads all Major League relievers with a 12.75 strikeout/walk ratio.
Gregerson sets the table for Adams in the eighth frame, who leads the majors in holds with 22. Right behind him in second is Gregerson with 19. Both are on pace to shatter the all-time record of 36, held by Scott Linebrink and Tom Gordon.
If you manage to get through Gregerson and Adams unscathed, it doesn't get much easier at the end of the line, where Heath Bell looms.
Bell was awarded his second All-Star appearance in his second full season on the closing job. Bell ranks second in saves (24) and his 1.88 ERA and 11.74 strikeout-per-nine innings ratio are ideal closing numbers.
With the efficiency of the Padres starting staff, the bullpen hasn't been overworked so far and might just allow the relievers to hold up through the rest of the season.
In an act the Friar Faithful haven't seen in a few years, the Padres and first-year general manager Jed Hoyer will likely be buyers rather than sellers when the trade deadline nears.
One piece to the postseason puzzle could be another power source in the lineup.
Remember that Kyle Blanks guy?
He was the one penciled in cleanup position in the Opening Day lineup, anointed with the task of protecting Adrian Gonzalez, and it's safe to say his first full Major League campaign didn't go according to plan.
In 33 games Blanks hit .157 with three home runs and 46 strikeouts. He suffered a setback during a rehab assignment with Triple-A Portland in June. So far, surgery hasn't been discussed, but there's no indication of when he'll be sent back out on a rehab assignment.
Many were scratching their heads at the offseason Kevin Kouzmanoff trade, Hoyer's first big move as GM. But the two pieces acquired in that deal—Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham—along with the signing of Chris Denorfia, who also was in the Oakland A's organization, have served admirably in the Padres outfield.
Also penciled in that Opening Day lineup was shortstop Everth Cabrera. Cabrera he has missed a combined 42 games over two DL stints due to a lingering hamstring injury. The ceiling remains high for Cabrera, who appears healthy, and he could be an integral part of the Padres playoff push.
Less than 48 hours after signing Scott Hairston, San Diego signed his brother Jerry Hairston Jr. to a one-year contract. Fresh off a World Series stint with the Yankees, Hairston, despite seeing most his action at shortstop with the Cabrera injury, has super-utility qualities that have proved invaluable to the Padres success.
Last, but certainly not least, the Friar Faithful can rest assured. With a club in pursuit of their first division crown since winning consecutive titles in 2005-06, Adrian Gonzalez is not going anywhere.
Major League teams would be lined up all the way to Coronado to have a chance at owning a player of Gonzalez's caliber.
Yet, as long as the Padres keep winning games, behind timely hitting and solid pitching, the three-time All-Star and two-time gold glove winner, not to mention San Diego and Tijuana native, is staying put in a Padres uniform. For now, that is.
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