They must find a way to put the least stress on the pitchers -- specifically Mat Latos -- who are responsible for getting them this far.
Latos has become the Padres' ace, but he's also getting into dangerous territory with his workload, leaving the Padres to search for a way to use their best pitcher as little as possible.
"I'm getting a lot of questions about that," manager Bud Black said. "We have some ideas, some strategies, as far as watching his workload."
It's become generally accepted industry practice to prevent young pitchers from increasing their innings too dramatically from one year to the next. Ever since Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, with the help of renowned pitching coach Rick Peterson, ran the numbers and determined that pitchers under 25 are more likely to suffer injuries or become ineffective if their innings increase too much -- the Verducci Effect, as it has come to be known -- many clubs have been vigilant about innings counts.
It's relatively easy to put the brakes on a young pitcher when his team is out of contention, but it becomes a dicey situation during a pennant race.
Four pitchers in particular find themselves in just that spot now: Latos, Madison Bumgarner, Phil Hughes and Jaime Garcia. (If you are wondering about closer-turned-starter C.J. Wilson, his innings are less of a concern because he's 29.)
Of those, Latos is the most intriguing because he also happens to be the Padres' best pitcher. The others are all tucked safely behind more established aces.
Latos, 22, is 13-5 with a 2.22 ERA. He threw 122 2/3 innings last season, and never more than 56 1/3 in the minors prior to that. So far this year he's already at 142 2/3, with more than five weeks to go in the regular season. The postseason could tack on another four or five starts, the Padres are hoping.
Any increase over 20 percent is considered dangerous territory. Latos is already there. Latos would seem to be at even further risk because last season his innings doubled, so this would be the second year in a row with a marked increase. Latos was on Verducci's at-risk list going into 2010.
Part of the Padres' plan was to shut Latos down for two weeks at the All-Star break. He was placed on the disabled list with a strained left side, the result of trying to stifle a sneeze. Just this week the Padres used Monday's off day to push him back and give him three extra days of rest. He'll pitch on Friday on seven days of rest.
The Padres have only two more off days the rest of the season, but Black said they may use at least one of those to give Latos another blow. The club is also optimistic that injured starter Chris Young will be back in September. Tim Stauffer might also be used a spot starter, giving all of the pitchers a little break. Wade LeBlanc, 25, and Clayton Richard, 26, are also going to hit career-highs for innings, but their increases are going to be less dramatic, and they are both older than Latos, so they don't concern the Padres as much.
Although Black isn't really in a position to hold Latos back to what would be considered a typical innings increase, he didn't dismiss the notion that watching the numbers is important.
"I think in general there is something to it," said Black, a former pitcher and pitching coach. "There are probably cases that work both ways if you really break down every pitcher that ever pitched. There are probably some guys that have been able to handle a big workload increase and other guys haven't. But you can draw some conclusions that there are some increases in innings that put a young pitcher in jeopardy based on where he's been in prior years, but I also know that some pitchers, because of their mechanics and how they are doing in a particular year, might be more able to handle it."
Black pointed out that the Padres have been extra cautious with Latos' pitch counts. He has not thrown 110 pitches in any start, and he's been held to fewer than 100 in 12 of his 23 starts, including five of the last seven.
"He tells me he feels fine," Black said, "and we just sort of leave it at that."
A look at where the other three pitchers stand:
The youngest pitcher of this group, Bumgarner just turned 21 earlier this month. He threw 141 1/3 innings in 2009, almost all of them at Double-A or below. This season, he's at a combined 153 innings, including 70 in the majors. He is 6-3 with a 3.20 ERA.
So far the Giants have done nothing to alter their rotation to ease the burden on Bumgarner. His only start with more than five days of rest was just after the All-Star break. Manager Bruce Bochy, whose team has five off days the rest of way, said the Giants may use at least one of those to slide Bumgarner back a few days.
The problem is, Bumgarner is currently the Giants' most consistent starter, and they are locked in a tight pennant race.
"I really think it's how they are pitching, the stress load that goes with the innings they are throwing," Bochy said, speaking in general about innings limits. "I think you do have to watch them a little bit, sure, but I think that can be overdone, too."
Garcia, one of the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year, has been a revelation for the Cardinals. Garcia is 11-6 with a 2.42 ERA. He is pitching his first full season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, though, so last year he worked only 37 2/3 innings. He's at 141 1/3 right now.
The difference with Garcia is he is 24, a little older than Latos or Bumgarner, and he pitched a full, 155-inning season in 2006, before he got hurt.
"We are very aware of his total starts/innings and we will try to minimize his starts/innings during the month of September," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said in an email.
The Cardinals, however, have just two scheduled off days left, and one of those may be taken up by a makeup game against the Marlins. The Cardinals, like the Giants, are also in a tight playoff race.
It seems like Hughes has been around for a while, but he's still only 24 and he hasn't gone through a full season as a starter since 2006, when he pitched 146 innings at Double-A and below. Last year he was a reliever in the big leagues, and pitched just 111 2/3 innings, including the postseason. He is at 140 2/3 innings right now.
The Yankees say he has an innings limit, but they won't say what it is. It is believed to be about 175 to 180. The Yankees, who have the benefit of a comfortable lead for a playoff spot, have three remaining off days. They brought up Ivan Nova to give everyone an extra day. Javier Vazquez was just sent to the bullpen, so that adds another wrinkle. They also have Andy Pettitte presumably coming off the disabled list sometime in September. That leaves a lot of possibilities for inserting extra starters here and there, if the Yankees choose to do it. They could even have Hughes come out of starts early, filling in with someone like Vazquez behind him.
"Sure, it's difficult (to deal with in a pennant race)," pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "But you've got to put the player first. You've got to put his career first. That's what this whole thing is about."
Contributing: Senior MLB Writer Ed Price.