PHOENIX -- The day dawned on Monday for the Padres and life couldn't have looked much sweeter. They led the National West by five games with 33 left to play and Manny Ramirez was no longer working for the division-rival Dodgers. Now all they have to do is close the deal. Heading into the final month of the season, that will be no easy task. Playing a game in April should be approached with the same attitude as playing one in September, Padres manager Bud Black said before the Padres were drop-kicked, 7-2, by the D-backs at Chase Field. That's all well and good in theory, but as Magic Johnson used to say, "This is winning time, folks." And when the temperature is dialed up a few notches it separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff.
"There's a lot of baseball left," Black acknowledged. "We'd rather be in this position than the alternative. Now it's up to us to continue to play well and hold our ground." Nothing can be taken away from what the Padres have already accomplished this season, one in which they were discounted early by all the experts. With a $38 million payroll and a roster chock full of young players, they have traveled that road much farther than anyone anticipated. But now they have hit a rough patch and will find out just what they are made of. They've lost five in row for the first time since July 19-23, 2009, during a stretch of eight losses in nine games. In their past four games this time around they have scored five times. The mirror image of the current streak is the 10 of 11 the Padres won earlier this month that helped pad their division lead by as much as 6 1/2 games over the second-place Giants. They may need every bit of that. The Padres still lead the Giants by five games after San Francisco blew a 1-0, ninth-inning lead on Monday night in San Francisco to the Rockies, who were 2-1 winners. The Giants, though, might not be final-month demons for the Padres. The Rockies seem to make the best of their Septembers and are in third place, trailing by seven games. The Rox made a great end-of-the-season run in 2007 and parlayed that into their only World Series appearance. Their victims were the Padres, whom they beat on the last pitch of Game No. 163, a regular-season tiebreaker. Last year, they played themselves into another Wild Card berth. "Their history tells you that they have confidence to do something special," Black said. "The names have changed a little bit from year to year, but it's still a group that has enough guys who have been there before. Anything can happen. They know that because they've lived it." The Dodgers are 1-0 in the post-Manny era, having defeated the Phillies, 3-0, at Dodger Stadium on Monday night behind Hiroki Kuroda's 7 2/3 innings of one-hit ball. They still trail the Padres by nine games. No matter what the Dodgers do the rest of the season, the prospects of the Padres facing them six more times sans Manny has to be a positive. When Manny was on his game two years ago, he single-handedly destroyed the D-backs after the July 31 trade that brought him to Los Angeles from Boston. "You can definitely make a case that he was the major reason for the Dodgers winning it that year," Black said. "He was swinging the bat great." In 53 games with Los Angeles in '08, Ramirez batted .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs as the Dodgers defeated Arizona by two games to win the division. In eight postseason games, Ramirez batted .520 (13-for-25) with four homers and 10 RBIs. During his career, his teams have thrived in the postseason. With him, the Indians went to the World Series twice in 1995 and '97, only to lose. The Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years in 2004 and did it again by sweeping the Rockies in '07. The Dodgers went as far as the NL Championship Series the past two seasons, losing both to the Phillies. The White Sox, who claimed Manny on waivers, hope Ramirez has enough left to get them back to the playoffs. But the Padres know that Manny is no longer a problem for them this season. And that can only be good news. "With Manny playing like he's capable, playing like the Manny of old, it's obviously an advantage to the opposing team if he's not in there," Black said. "It's a different type of [Dodgers] lineup without Manny, but still very challenging." The final 32 games will be nothing less than challenging for this bunch of Padres. Perhaps history can be a guide. In 1984 and 1998 -- the only two seasons this club has gone to the World Series -- they waded into September with huge division leads. In '98, they led by 15 games on Sept. 1 and won by nine after finishing 9-15. In '84, they led by nine on Sept. 1 and won by 12 even though they went 14-14. If the Padres finish 16-16 in their last 32 games, they'll win 92 times. That should be enough to take the division title because either the Giants or Rockies will have to play at a torrid pace just to catch them. The Giants would have to win 20 of their final 30. The Rockies would have to win 23 of their final 32. As Black acknowledged, anything can happen. But the Padres are certainly in control. All they must do is close the deal. "Or whatever term you want to use," Black agreed.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.