One year ago today, the San Diego Padres were 76-49, 6-1/2 games up in the NL West thanks to going 8-2 in their previous 10 games. This stretch pushed their playoff odds, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, to over 90 percent.
The Padres then lost 10 games in a row, allowing the Giants to cut San Diego's lead to one game. The Rockies, who had been 10-1/2 games out before the losing streak, were now 4-1/2 back. Colorado would then go on a 10-game winning streak that put them just 1-1/2 back of the Padres and Giants, who were now tied for first place with 20 games to go -- the Padres had seen their playoff odds cut in half, to 46 percent, in a matter of weeks.
San Diego was eliminated on the final day of the season, kicked out of a race that, just a month before, they seemingly had wrapped up. The seeds for the 10-game losing streak were planted earlier in August -- a stretch like that is inherently fluky, especially for a playoff-caliber team, but you could see where cracks were showing in the Padres' armor. Kevin Correia fell apart in August, posting an ERA of 7.20 while averaging just five innings per start. Wade LeBlanc, who had been filling in for the injured Chris Young nearly all year, also struggled, allowing opponents to hit .285/.336/.562, giving him a 6.47 ERA for the month and barely over five innings per start.
The performances of LeBlanc and Correia stretched the bullpen -- a historically good one that featured three closer-worthy hurlers at the top of their games -- to the breaking point. Combine that with injuries -- Tony Gwynn Jr.'s defense was sorely missed in center field thanks to a broken hamate bone, and Ryan Ludwick, acquired from the Cardinals, never got over his mid-season calf injury in 2010 -- and the insertion of Tim Stauffer into the rotation too late in the year, and you can see why things went south in a hurry.
The story of the 2010 Padres is something to keep in mind when looking at this year's races. Or, if you've been following the stories, the lack of them. The AL East isn't wrapped up, but it's likely both the Red Sox and Yankees will make it to October, as New York is eight games up on the Wild Card. The Tigers are starting to pull away in the AL Central, as the Indians, after sitting 15 games over .500 on May 23, are now under .500 for the first time since April 3. The Cardinals are now 9-1/2 back of the surging Brewers in the NL Central, and both the Reds and Pirates, so close not that long ago, seem miles behind now.
The AL West is close once again, though, with the Rangers just two games up on the Angels after losing three of four to Boston at the same time the Angels were winning six in a row. The Phillies have been deemed unbeatable by many, but they are just six games up on the talented Braves -- their situation is much like the Boston/New York dynamic, though, as both teams are expected to play in October. The Diamondbacks have won three in a row to stretch their lead in the NL West to three games, but it's looking like that division will be as hotly contested down the stretch as it was in 2010.
Much can happen in a short time, a fact that makes baseball as intriguing as it is. The Rangers have an 82 percent chance of making the playoffs as of this morning, with the Angels sitting on the other 18 percent. While that means it's very likely it will be the Rangers winning the division crown, we could have said the same about last year's San Diego Padres, and they had more wins and a larger lead than Texas at this stage. The Giants are still considered the favorites according to playoff odds, but have seen a 14 percent drop in the last week, letting the Diamondbacks crawl back in with a 44 percent chance of making the playoffs.
While it isn't necessarily likely that something drastic can happen to alter the odds, these things do occur up until the point a team is mathematically eliminated or secure. The Padres in 2010. The Mets in 2007, when they dropped 12 of their final 17 games and missed the playoffs despite having a seven-game lead on September 12, thanks to a team-wide pitching performance that would have made even LeBlanc and Correia grimace: the Mets allowed 6.8 runs per game over their final 17 contests.
Teams don't always play to their talent level, and while it's considered choking when it happens at the end of the season, the lone difference between that and any other time of the year is that you've run out of time to set things right. That's part of what makes baseball so great, though. It may seem like there isn't much going on in terms of races at the moment, but remember: this is baseball; no matter how much we think we know, the unexpected can -- and will -- occur.