- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
The best National League team dating back to last July formed a double line for handshakes after a series sweep on Thursday, and most of the players gave a little bit of extra attention to the tall right-hander wearing No. 38.
Good thing they know each other, because casual baseball fans probably don't. But they'll be learning in the days ahead, now that the San Diego Padres have built a gap between themselves and the rest of the NL West. It doesn't really matter if anybody knows who they are, Mat Latos said over the phone after the Padres' victory on Thursday. What matters is that San Diego is playing really well and he and his teammates are really focused.
"Everybody is up for the challenge when they get their chance," said Latos. "Everybody wants to be the lineup, everybody wants to be in the situation when we need a hit, everybody [in the rotation] is grinding, everybody is working to get the ball every fifth day and trying to put up a solid outing."
The Padres are doing that, as they have been doing since the end of July 2009. San Diego finished strong down the stretch last year, but their offseason was filled with industry speculation about when Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell would get traded.
Now a more appropriate question might be: Will the Padres be buyers before the trade deadline? They've earned the right to ask.
These are the top 10 teams in terms of winning percentage since last July 27:
1. New York Yankees: .663 (65-33)
2. Minnesota Twins .612 (60-38)
3. San Diego Padres .608 (59-38)
4. St. Louis Cardinals .604 (58-38)
5. Philadelphia Phillies .576 (57-42)
6. Boston Red Sox .560 (56-44)
7. Tampa Bay Rays .557 (54-43)
8. San Francisco Giants .557 (54-43)
9. Colorado Rockies .557 (54-43)
10. Florida Marlins .536 (52-45)
And these are the top teams in ERA:
1. Cardinals: 3.12
2. Giants: 3.33
3. Padres: 3.41
4. Atlanta Braves: 3.56
5. Los Angeles Dodgers: 3.66
6. Phillies: 3.73
7. Seattle Mariners: 3.82
8. Yankees: 3.92
9. Rays: 3.93
10. Rockies: 4.07
The Padres lead the majors in ERA this season, and Latos has been a big part of those numbers. Before his start against the Florida Marlins on April 26, Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley shifted Latos from the third-base side of the pitching rubber to the first-base side, because he had been struggling to throw the ball away from right-handed hitters and in to left-handed hitters. In that first start against the Marlins -- "I was getting used to the other side of the mound," Latos recalled -- he allowed seven runs in 2.2 innings.
Since then, however, Latos' command has been much better; he hasn't allowed a walk in his last two starts, over 17 innings. And against the Giants on Thursday, Latos looked like he could throw any pitch in any part of the strike zone, mixing his breaking balls enough so that he made even Pablo Sandoval look silly when he zinged a fastball over the outside corner. The shift on the rubber "has helped me a lot," said Latos, sounding breathless and in a hurry.
The Padres had a plane to catch to head home. They now have five games in San Diego against the Dodgers and Giants. You can bet that by now, the rest of the NL West believes.
Why Latos won, from Puneet Nanda of ESPN Stats & Information: Six at-bats went to 2-0, 2-1 or to three-ball counts, and 100 percent of those were converted into outs. Latos finished batters off; 14 batters went to two-strike counts and 13 of those batters turned into outs. That's good for 93 percent compared to the MLB average of 72 percent.
The best stuff that Latos had was in the eighth inning, writes Chris Jenkins. No doubt. I watched the last innings of this game and Latos was completely dominant.
• We may have seen the all-time killer vote of confidence this week from Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore. On Monday, he told the Kansas City Star that manager Trey Hillman "is a tremendous leader. ... He's exactly what our organization needs at this point in time."
That all changed in a hurry. On Thursday, of course, Hillman was fired. The fact that Moore fired a friend could be a positive sign for the Royals, writes Sam Mellinger. The losses required a change at manager, Moore said.
Hillman isn't sure why it didn't work, writes Bob Dutton. Here's the bottom line: They didn't have enough talent. Last year, it was because they didn't have enough hitting talent, and this year, the bullpen is a disaster. Compare the Royals with other midlevel-market teams and small-market teams, and they just don't have a lot going for them.
• You can't stop the Nationals, you can only hope to contain them: Washington blasted the Rockies 14-6 on Thursday, as Adam Kilgore writes. Washington, a team that lost 103 games last season, is 20-15 and the summer forecast is only getting better for them. They have opened the season with what has been arguably the most difficult schedule in the first quarter of the season, with a bunch of games against the teams that made the playoffs last year -- and Washington is just a game out of first place.
...and they've got the resources to make midseason moves.
...and they'll be adding a seventh-inning reliever sometime soon in Drew Storen, a first-round pick from last year.
...and they've got another pitcher on the way -- guy named Stephen Strasburg. You may have heard of him. "Dude, you can't not hear of him," said Adam Dunn, before Thursday's game.
Dunn woke up on Thursday morning, after the Nationals' long flight to Colorado, flipped on the TV, "and of course, [Strasburg's] big ol' mug was on," said Dunn. "He deserves it."
Strasburg threw six no-hit innings on Wednesday, and has allowed one hit, two walks and no runs in Triple-A so far; he is less than a month away from being in the big leagues, from joining a pennant contender, from moving into the next level of scrutiny that no pitcher other than Daisuke Matsuzaka has faced before throwing a pitch in the majors. "If anybody can handle it, it's him," said Dunn.
"The cavalry is coming to help," Dunn said. "This is a fun team that plays hard, and who knows what can happen."
• Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau relay that the lowest ERA in the first seven starts of the season for the Rays is a list dominated by the current staff. In 2008, Scott Kazmir had a 1.40 ERA through seven starts, but after that it's this year's group, with David Price (2.03), Jeff Niemann (2.27) and Matt Garza (2.49).
Dings and dents
1. Why Justin Verlander won: He finished off hitters; 87 percent of two-strike at bats became outs compared to the MLB average of 72 percent. He got the first batter of the inning out. After Derek Jeter reached on an infield single on the first at bat of the game, Verlander proceeded to get the first batter out in each of the next five innings. His percentage translated to 86 percent compared to the MLB average of 68 percent.
3. The Indians lost to the Royals, and then Manny Acta met with his starting pitcher, as Paul Hoynes writes.
4. The Yankees are doing battle with some reinforcements, and they were no match for Justin Verlander, as Ben Shpigel writes.
5. The Mets lost a tough decision.
6. The Orioles ripped the guts out of the Mariners.
The Patience Index
• Bud Selig is ignoring calls to move the 2011 All-Star Game. Folks within MLB are asking a fair question: How many other industries are boycotting their business in Arizona?
• Jerry Manuel laughed off the suggestion of Charlie Manuel that the Mets are stealing signs.
• Mark McGwire's highway is being renamed.
• The Twins need to conquer Yankee Stadium, writes Jim Souhan.
• So far, there haven't been a lot of homers in Target Field.
• Attendance has plummeted at Citi Field.
• Got an early-morning assignment today, so I didn't have time to get to all the links. We'll get to them on Saturday.
And today will be better than yesterday.