The term “must-win game” is overused to the point of rendering it useless. When fans, panicking over a June slump, call Game 68 a must-win, it tends to lose all meaning. Yet there are still games that a team must win if it will advance to the playoffs. By that strict definition, the Padres are not in a must-win situation tonight. Even if they lose and the Giants win they’ll still be three back in the division with three games against the Giants this weekend. But prayers of a four-game sweep, including Game 163, are not ones that are frequently answered.
Turning to Garland
With their last chance to gain ground before the weekend series in San Francisco, the Padres will hand the ball to Jon Garland. It will be the second time this season he has faced the Cubs. The first was on August 17, when he shut out Chicago through seven innings. That was at Wrigley Field. This time he’ll have a bit more margin for error while pitching at home in Petco Park. But as we know, past performance is no guarantee of future gains — especially when that past performance comprises just one outing.
During his first season in San Diego, Garland has realized a few changes from years past. He’s striking out nearly six per nine innings, a mark that he hasn’t approached previously in his career. The closest he came was 5.23 per nine back in 2002. He’s also walking a ton of batters, four per nine, which is the highest rate he’s realized since walking 4.23 per nine in 117 innings as a 21-year-old. Yet his FIP and xFIP are still within one standard deviation of his career average. So why, then, is his ERA so low at 3.58?
A career-high 52.4 percent ground ball rate has to play into the reason for Garland’s success. Only in 2008, when pitching for the Angels, did he come close to keeping half of his balls in play on the ground. That has helped his tERA, 4.31 against a career average of 5.19. He has also realized good results on balls in play, as his .267 BABIP is his lowest since 2005. His strand rate, 75.4 percent, is also his best since 2005. It’s no surprise, then, that his ERA also approaches his 2005 mark.
The Padres have to be comfortable with Garland taking the hill in a season-making game. He’s had success at Petco this season, a 3.19 ERA in 101.2 innings, and has generally been among the team’s top pitchers. If the Pads continue to play stellar defense, Garland should be just fine.
The Padres haven’t had a very good offense all season. At 4.15 runs per game they rank 11th in the NL. That includes a September swoon in which they’ve scored just three runs per game and have scored zero or one runs seven times. In their next four games they will play the Nos. 10 and 9 offenses in the NL, so they’re not at a distinct disadvantage. But they still have to score more than three runs per game in their final four. That’s going to be a rough proposition when facing San Francisco and its No. 2 pitching staff. Thankfully for them, the Cubs have allowed the fourth most runs in the NL, so perhaps tonight they can put up a crooked number in support of Garland and, ultimately, their playoff hopes.
Out of their control
In a way the Padres control their own destiny. If they win their next four games they will, at worst, force a one-game playoff with San Francisco. If the Giants drop the finale to Arizona tonight, a four-game win streak (five counting last night) will put the Padres alone atop the NL West. But, again, banking on sweeping a team that is not only ahead, but has also played better baseball of late, does not always reap rewards.
Before they take on the Cubs at 6:35 EDT this evening, the Padres will certainly be in the clubhouse watching San Francisco play Arizona. If Arizona can defeat Madison Bumgarner, the Padres will move to within 1.5 games of first. A victory on their part would put just a single game between the two teams heading into their weekend series. The Padres, then, would only need to win two of three on the road in order to force a Game 163. If the Giants win, the Padres must then win all three games in San Francisco.
The Braves also present an obstacle for the Padres. A game and a half currently separates the two teams, meaning San Diego desperately needs a win tonight to stay within one game heading into the final weekend. Atlanta plays Philadelphia at home, and while they fight for their playoff lives Philly will be worried about resting up for the NLDS; they already have home-field advantage locked up. While Philly swept Atlanta just last week, the stakes are different this time. Philly won’t lay down for Atlanta, but they also won’t be starting Roy Halladay. It doesn’t guarantee Atlanta anything, but it certainly makes for a match-up more favorable than the last one.
The importance of tonight
While the Padres can retain their postseason hopes even with a loss tonight, a win will go a long way. Here’s the general breakdown.
If the Padres lose tonight, they need:
1) To sweep San Francisco this weekend, whether San Fran wins or loses today.
2) To take two of three from San Francisco and have the Phillies sweep the Braves.
Winning tonight changes that a bit. A San Fran win means that a sweep is still required, but it does make San Diego’s Wild Card hunt a bit easier. In that case they would need to take two of three while Philly takes two of three. And if San Fran loses it means that San Diego has to take only two of three to force a tie.
In any scenario it will not be an easy path to the postseason for San Diego. Their hopes ride on winning, and possibly sweeping, a series on the road against a team that not only has a better record, but also has been playing much better baseball lately. It also means getting help from a team that has nothing left to play for. That doesn’t bod well. But it does make for some excellent September baseball.