SAN DIEGO -- From the shadows they've emerged this season, buried underneath last-place predictions and a payroll that ranks 29th in the majors, a joyous collection of dreamers and doers.
So why should it seem so strange that the shadows would turn in the Padres' favor at the most opportune of times, in late September, eight games from storming the postseason gates?
|The Padres celebrate another win toward their goal of making the playoffs. (AP)|
There was Chris Denorfia, two out and Headley on first in the ninth, drilling the first pitch he saw from Chapman down the line at third, a screamer that Gold Glover Scott Rolen at least knocks down nine out of 10 times.
Except, this time, the ball somehow lasered down the line past Rolen's glove and rattled around in the left-field corner long enough to allow Headley to score from first and deliver a 4-3 gut-punch to the champagne-still-on-ice Reds.
And as San Francisco was set to tee it up against Colorado shortly after the Padres-Reds game ended, here's what you had in the National League, two playoff slots looking up for grabs among this trio:
San Francisco 87-67
San Diego 87-67
This last week is going to be some kind of adventure.
"You don't need those five-hour energy drinks during the pennant race," Padres closer Heath Bell quipped after picking up the win and moving to 6-0.
Point taken: Every day is an unending five-hour energy surge.
Before the game, Reds manager Dusty Baker was talking about how so many folks would like to see Chapman and his electric stuff moved to the closer's role. Among other things, as Baker noted, Friday's night's show -- every single one of Chapman's 25 pitches checked in at 100 or higher -- came after Chapman had not pitched in four days.
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Working back-to-back days Saturday for only the second time since the Reds recalled him late last month, Chapman's fastball was great, but not mind-bending. He mostly was sitting 98-99.
The poor Reds have all but officially wrapped up the NL Central and, with St. Louis' loss to the Cubs on Saturday, watched their magic number drop to two. They could clinch as early as Sunday, if they can win the series finale here and the Cards lose again. But they're only 9-14 in September and, more alarming yet, are only 29-41 against teams over .500.
Anyway, with one out in the ninth, Headley worked a walk against Chapman the hard way: By trying to see that blazing fastball through the shadows.
"It definitely didn't make it any easier," Headley said. "But both teams have to deal with it. Heath and Mike [Adams, Padres setup man] aren't slouches, either.
"What I tried to do was be selective. You're not going to be able to cover every part of the plate with a guy like that who has a breaking ball as well. So I looked at one area, and if the pitch wasn't there, you hope it's a ball. And if it's a strike, you tip your cap."
Nick Hundley flied out with Headley on first for the second out. Then, after Chapman threw over to first once to keep Headley honest, Denorfia rifled a shot down the line that, if you knew anything about Rolen, you never expected to roll all the way into the left-field corner.
Baker cited the shadows as dramatically increasing the degree of difficulty.
Rolen being Rolen, he scoffed at that and said he should have at least knocked it down.
The view from another Gold Glover living and dying with each pitch?
"I thought the shadows made for a tough background," Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "He didn't pick up the ball real well."
"The shadows are a factor for everybody -- fielders, hitters, umpires," Padres manager Bud Black said. "At 3:30, 4 o'clock, it's rough sledding for everybody."
Given the late-afternoon shadows covering the schedule with only eight games left, were you to train a stopwatch on Headley's dash from first all the way home, it probably would have been his quickest sprint of the year.
"It sure didn't feel like it," he said. "You feel like you're running in mud. When you're trying to score, the only thing I'm thinking about is trying to take good angles. Make good, sound cuts around the bases."
All season, the Padres have stressed the fundamentals and played the angles. Their latest was trying like crazy the other day to talk -- gulp -- Felipe Lopez into coming.
Felipe Lopez? Cat who couldn't show up on time for Tony La Russa's Cardinals and was unceremoniously dumped by St. Louis this week? Yes.
The reticent Lopez spurned them and joined Boston instead on Saturday, and this all bubbled back to mind when Miguel Tejada, who was hitting .378 with 13 RBI over his past 11 games and has scored 30 runs in 50 games for the Padres, was forced to leave for a pinch-runner in the eighth inning after tweaking his groin.
With Jerry Hairston Jr. out for the season with a stress fracture, the Padres are alarmingly thin in infield depth.
But what happens? Pinch-runner Everth Cabrera swipes second and scoots over to third when catcher Ramon Hernandez's throw bounces into center field.
Though Cabrera was stranded and the Padres didn't win it until the next inning, it was a vivid portrait of what they do: Everybody contributes.
"We feel like the eight position players that go out every day are not going to win the game," Padres closer Heath Bell said. "It's all 25 of us. Or, with September callups, maybe all 30 of us. ...
"We're not looking for Tejada to win the game every time. You notice that the last two nights, we won as a team, not because of what Miggy did or what Adrian did. This is a team, not just nine guys going out there."
Tejada promised afterward that his groin was a minor issue, that the trainers spruced him up and he was feeling "nothing" wrong at all. Essentially said there's as much chance of him not being able to make it to the starting bell for Sunday's series finale as there is of California being swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean.
If he isn't, the Padres are down to Cabrera (.209) to play short. Only option after that is to move David Eckstein over from second and plug Oscar Salazar (.240) into second.
"I got to be up there," the softspoken shortstop said. "I know that whoever the manager puts in, if I don't feel good, will do the job. But I cannot sit and watch and not go."
With Saturday's finishing kick, the Padres now are 28-20 in one-run games. The pattern is the same: They lay in the shadows looking all unimpressive, and then they strike.