SAN FRANCISCO -- As the bags were being packed on Sunday, with the bats and balls about to be mothballed for another offseason, the Padres went about the clubhouse business of wrapping things up. The sting of a season-ending, 3-0, loss to the now National League West-champion Giants was still all too fresh, but by no stretch of the imagination was there any reason for this little team that could to hang its collective head. Six months ago, nobody, but nobody, expected the Padres to be at Game 162 with even a glimmer of hope to make the playoffs.
"When you look at a baseball season, you look at 162 games and you evaluate it on that," Padres manager Bud Black said. "You look at what we did over 162 and then you come to your own conclusions. My conclusion is we played our butts off and had a good year." With the Braves having hung on to defeat the Phillies, 8-7, in Atlanta, all the Padres had to do was win out on Sunday to force the first three-way tie for a division title and Wild Card spot in Major League Baseball history. Plans were already being made. The Padres let it be known early during the game at AT&T Park that a one-game playoff for West bragging rights would be played -- if necessary -- on Monday at PETCO Park between the Giants and Padres at 1 p.m. PT. The loser would then fly to Atlanta to play a tiebreaker for the Wild Card on Tuesday. It wasn't to be. The Giants won the West and the Braves the Wild Card, salvaging a playoff berth in Bobby Cox's 29th and final year as a big league manager. Those teams will be opening their best-of-five NL Division Series in San Francisco on Thursday night at 6:37 p.m. PT. In contrast, the Padres flew immediately home after the game. "It's my son Reece's seventh birthday," Padres closer Heath Bell said. "He was so pumped about this he'll be more disappointed than I am that we didn't make it. And I'm pretty disappointed." In another dramatic and tense affair, the Giants scored early, taking a 2-0, third-inning lead off young Padres starter Mat Latos. The Padres had multiple runners on base almost every inning and several chances to score off Jonathan Sanchez, who walked five and allowed three hits in a little more than five innings. In the end, the Friars stranded nine and Giants relievers retired the last seven batters they faced, with Brian Wilson tying a franchise record by recording his 48th save. It's that same offensive knife edge that the Padres balanced on all season. They scored 665 runs and were shut out 12 times. They allowed 581 runs so there wasn't much margin of error to play with. "I hate to say it, but we had a lot of games early on, a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 victories," Padres second baseman David Eckstein said. "You wish it was something different, but that's who we were." Still, veterans like Eckstein felt early on that there was a rare cohesiveness, a never-say-die attitude to the team. That will to prevail was evident this weekend when the Padres arrived on Friday night, trailing the Giants in the NL West by three and the Braves in the Wild Card race by two with only three left to play. All the Padres did was capture the first two games of the crucial series, giving renewed meaning to the final day of the season. "This is a very difficult one. I fully expected to make it," said Eckstein, who won the World Series with the 2002 Angels and the '06 Cardinals. "Coming up one game short definitely hurts. I fully expected to make the playoffs when we started this season. Oh my gosh, yes." Folks will talk about the 10-game losing streak and blowing the 6 1/2-game lead they had on the Giants as late as Aug. 25. They'll point to a pair of home series in September, when the Padres lost three out of four to the Giants and only last week three of four more to the Cubs. But in the end, there must be a much longer view. "This was a heck of a step," said Jeff Moorad, finishing his second season as the team's vice chairman and chief executive. With a 90-72 record, it's only the fourth time in the 42-year history of the franchise that the Padres won 90 or more games in a single season. The others were 1984, '96 and '98, all playoff years. They did it with a player payroll of $38 million that was the second-lowest in MLB, even with the Trade Deadline acquisitions of Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick. Black, in his fourth year with the club and fourth as a big league manager, has grown exponentially on the job. After turning in his finest season in the dugout, he's a bona fide candidate for NL Manager of the Year, along with the Reds' Dusty Baker and the Giants' Bruce Bochy, the man Black replaced in San Diego. Black was not shy about it either, calling it the most gratifying year he's ever had with a team in his some 30 years as a player, pitching coach and manager. Considering he played for the 1985 World Series-winning Royals and was the pitching coach on Eckstein's 2002 Angels, that's saying something. Seeing it from all angles, Black said on Sunday that teams push right to the abyss "and then reality hits." "I've been in this game long enough. In the end, there's only one team that's happy," he said. "There's one and that's what it's all about. We were hoping to get in that [final] eight. But we're not there. I know from my experience as a player and coach that it's the same feeling now as when you lose in the playoffs. "I've been fortunate. I've been on teams when we won the last game. There's no better feeling than that." But no more hollow feeling than the Padres were experiencing on Sunday, their souls heavy with emotion while for the last time in the 2010 season, the baggage was being packed.
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.