Ordinarily, when a team that's held strong in first place after five months falls into a slump, people are taken by surprise. They're caught off guard, and they begin to get worried. If they're fans of the team, anyway. If they're fans of other teams - rival teams - they delight in their rival's sudden misery. Basically, it changes things. It makes people feel a lot less sure about a team that was previously thought to have proven itself.
Those principles don't really apply to the Padres. Sure, on August 25th, they peaked at 27 games over .500, and 6.5 games up in the division. On August 25th, they held the best record in the National League, and were just a game off the best record in baseball. But still, few people ever really bought into them. From the beginning, they were baseball's Cinderella story, but the thing about Cinderella stories is that, no matter how much support they may get, no one expects them to keep going. Eventually, they'll have to look down.
And so when the Padres hit their slide - losing ten in a row, and 16 of 22, to move into second place for the first time since June - people weren't taken by surprise. They weren't caught off guard. They saw it not as a shock, but rather as a demonstration of the universe righting itself. The Padres, such was the consensus opinion, were never supposed to be as good as they looked, and so at last they were regressing back to what they should've been. And what they should've been was a team in the cellar.
In short, the Padres' ill-timed slump didn't exactly aid their fight for respect. It was seen as justification for everyone's continuing skepticism.
A side effect of this perspective, however, is that it causes one to underestimate the magnitude of what has gone on. So maybe the Padres aren't as good as their record might suggest. So maybe people were right to be a little skeptical. That shouldn't take away from the fact that, on August 25th, according to CoolStandings.com, the Padres' playoff odds were 97.2%.
97.2%. Then the slump happened. Things didn't change much in the early going. A loss dropped them to 95.8%. Then 95.1%. Then 95.1% again. Then 92.5%. But soon the decline picked up speed. 82.9%. 63.0%. 48.8%. A few days ago, the Padres bottomed out at 34.4%, after having dropped out of first place and out of playoff position.
Less than a month after holding the second-largest division lead in baseball, the Padres are in a fight for their lives, with a real chance of missing out on the postseason. Even if the Padres were a fraud the whole time - a feeling I'd dispute - to lose that much ground, that quickly, would be beyond remarkable. It'd be historical.
The Padres, right now, are back in first place after having won on Wednesday night. They hold a half-game lead over the Giants, and are even with the Braves. Their playoff odds are looking pretty good at 61.9%. Yet their grip is tenuous. The whole picture could change in a day. There are no longer any certainties, or probablies, and these final weeks could very well cause the Padres to miss out on everything they'd spent so long working for.
And if that happens - if the Padres go on to miss the playoffs - their collapse will go down as one of the biggest baseball's ever seen. To go from odds of 97.2% to missing out completely would, according to CoolStandings' calculations, stand as the seventh-worst collapse of all time, between the Mariners' collapse in 2003 and the Dodgers' collapse in 1962. Sure, you can argue with the numbers. You can argue with how they're derived, and on what foundation they're based. What you can't argue with is that the Padres are staring a legendary collapse in the face.
Because they're back in first, it's important to remember that the Padres are in a good position. They seem to have put their skid behind them and are back to playing decent baseball at a very critical time. Just make no mistake: if they fail, it won't matter how much you did or didn't believe in them as a team. They will have made history.