Losing Bradley is a big blow for Padres

Not many people in this world pretend to know Milton Bradley well enough to understand him.

But the people who know him best often describe a man whose demeanor is very different from the Milton Bradley whose combustible temper might have irrevocably changed the course of baseball's most compelling pennant race saga, the National League wild-card race.

Kind. Generous. Smart. Engaging.

We have heard all those words used, by friends and teammates, to characterize the Milton Bradley the rest of us don't see. If only he could be that guy all the time.

But on Sunday, that other Milton Bradley came out. And the Padres, a team that rescued him in midseason and has been grateful it did, might never be the same.

When the Rockies showed up in San Diego on Friday, the Padres seemed to be the hottest team in the National League. But faster than you could say "Manny Corpas," the Rockies had wiped out the Padres' seven-game winning streak, stampeded to three straight wins at Petco and transformed the wild-card race into a crazy three-team fracas.

It's San Diego by a half-game over the Phillies, with the rampaging Rockies just 1½ back, after eight eyeball-popping wins in a row.

And now the Padres will be without the guy who has been their best hitter these last three months -- all because Milton Bradley erupted in a bonfire of rage, with just about no warning, and suffered a season-ending ACL tear to his right knee.

We have seen Bradley snap before, almost always after someone makes the mistake of pushing his buttons. But this latest incident set new standards in the annals of bizarre and inexplicable snap-outs.

It started, apparently, with a fifth-inning called strikeout that ended with Bradley's flipping his bat and initially refusing to leave the batter's box. Three innings later, with Bradley on first, first-base umpire Mike Winters and Bradley began debating that bat flip until, out of nowhere, Winters uttered the mysterious words that lit Bradley's fuse.

Next thing we knew, his manager, Bud Black, was sprinting toward his left fielder in a furious attempt to serve as the last line of defense between Bradley and the inevitable suspension that clearly would have awaited him if he'd ever made it to Winters' little patch of dirt.

Black yanked. And tugged. And pushed. And pulled. Did everything, in fact, but call out the National Guard. Until finally, he and Bradley twisted wildly.

Keep an eye on ...

Ryan HowardRyan Howard's strikeouts
The last game at Washington's RFK Stadium turned into a big day for the Reds' Adam Dunn -- and he was 3,000 miles away at the time. The big news was that the Phillies' Ryan Howard whiffed for the 195th time this year -- tying Dunn's all-time single-season strikeout record. And that tie won't last long. There's a 100 percent probability the Phillies won't bench Howard for the rest of the year to keep him from breaking the record. They have other priorities these days.

And down went Bradley with one of the strangest injuries we've ever witnessed -- a right knee seriously injured in a wrestling match with his own manager.

We're still not sure who started what. Or who was right or wrong. But it doesn't matter. Not really. At this time of year, no matter what was said or what was done, a player that important can't afford to lose control the way Milton Bradley did.

Since Bradley arrived from Oakland on July 7, he has batted .313 and led the Padres in both on-base percentage (.414) and slugging (.590). He has the same number of RBIs (30) as Brian Giles, but in about 100 fewer at-bats. Clearly, Bradley has been their most consistent and most important hitter. So don't underestimate what his loss means to this team.

"They can't hit," said one scout Sunday night. "The only guy on that club who is really swinging the bat well right now is [Kevin] Kouzmanoff. The other guys -- Giles, [Adrian] Gonzalez, Khalil Greene -- are incredibly streaky."

So losing Bradley in an incident this strange and unnecessary might have "just sabotaged what little offense that club has," the scout said. What a shame.

People are going to draw lots of quick, stereotypical conclusions about what makes Milton Bradley tick from this incident. We know that. He knows that. Those conclusions won't match the picture his friends sketch of the real him. But for Bradley and the Padres, this is no time for damage control.

It's time, simply, to see if they can save the season. Without him.

State of the races

No champagne has been sprayed by any team in the National League yet. But it's just about safe to predict that the Mets (up 2½ in the NL East), the Diamondbacks (up 2½ in the West) and the Cubs (now leading by 3½ in the Central) will win their divisions.

How do we know? History tells us. Those leads might seem small. But not at this stage of the year. We've gone back through every season since World War II. The evidence couldn't be more clear.

• In the previous 12 seasons of the wild-card era, there hasn't been a single team that was more than 1½ games out of a playoff spot with a week left in the season and came back to make the playoffs. Not one.

• To find the last team to blow a lead as large as the Mets and Diamondbacks' lead in the last week, we need to go back 20 years. That team was the 1987 Blue Jays, who coughed up a 2½-game pad over Detroit -- but had to lose their last seven games (four of them to the Tigers) to do it.

• And no team since World War II has blown a lead as large as the Cubs' lead with a week left. The biggest lead to disappear in the final week in all that time: three games, by the 1962 Dodgers and 1951 Dodgers -- both to the Giants, and both requiring memorable playoffs after the regular season because the teams finished those seasons tied. (Go ahead. Cue that Bobby Thomson home run call one more time. Does anyone get tired of that one -- except Ralph Branca?)

The homefield advantage derby

Would anyone have predicted a few weeks ago that the Indians would have the best record in the AL (92-63) right now? Exactly a month ago, they were seven games behind the Red Sox. Now, after taking two of three from the A's this weekend (and 24 of their last 31 against all comers), Cleveland is a half-game ahead of the Red Sox and Angels (both 92-64) in the best record sweepstakes.

If the season ended now, the Indians would play the Yankees in the Division Series -- which wouldn't seem like much of a reward, since the Tribe went 0-6 against New York this year. But at least they'd get three games at home, where they have the second-best record in baseball (51-29). Cleveland also almost certainly would take advantage of its option to choose the longer ALDS schedule, because it would mean that C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona could pitch four of those five games.

In the NL, the Diamondbacks (88-68) lead the Mets (87-68) by a half-game for the best record. At the moment, we're looking at Diamondbacks-Cubs and Mets-Padres NLDS matchups. But if the Phillies win the wild card, that would transform into Diamondbacks-Phillies, Mets-Cubs.

Quick takes

• If you're a law-and-order fan, you might want to order a citizen's arrest of Yankees manager Joe Torre. He committed his first violation of the Joba Rules on Sunday by using phenom Joba Chamberlain on just one day's rest, following a two-inning outing Friday night. Normally, Chamberlain is supposed to get two days off after he pitches two innings. But stuff does happen in pennant races, you know. So GM Brian Cashman told Torre he won't prosecute.

• The Brewers were a fun story for 5½ months. But we're afraid this one isn't going to have a happy ending. Sorry about that. Sunday was just another microcosm of their season, because it marked the 16th time this year they've lost a game they led by three runs or more. According to Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver, only one team since 1959 has blown that many leads of three-plus runs and made it to the postseason -- the 1963 Dodgers (who blew 18).

• Another not-so-fun Brewers note: With ace Ben Sheets out, manager Ned Yost decided to give fading left-hander Chris Capuano one more chance. Little did Yost know he was giving Capuano one more chance to do something that no pitcher had done since 1916 -- pitch his team to 17 straight losses. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Brewers are the first team to lose 17 straight starts by any pitcher since the 1916 Athletics lost 17 in a row started by Jack Nabors. Actually, if you count bullpen outings, the Brewers now have lost the last 21 games Capuano has even appeared in. Amazingly, they were 7-0 in his first seven starts of the year. Most schizophrenic season of all time. Don't you think?

• The Red Sox, Angels and Indians all clinched playoff spots over the weekend. According to Elias, when the Red Sox clinched at least a wild card Saturday, it was the latest date in the wild-card era for the first clinching of the season. They beat the old record, held by the 2000 Cardinals, by two days.

• Which teams win divisions and which teams don't could easily be determined this week by how rotations fall. So note carefully: The Phillies will get both Tim Hudson (Wednesday) and John Smoltz (Thursday) in their series with Atlanta. The Red Sox will miss Johan Santana in their series next weekend with the Twins. The Yankees have to play a makeup game with Toronto on Monday, and they drew A.J. Burnett, whose ERA against them in two starts this year is 0.60 (15 IP, 8 hits, 1 run, 13 strikeouts). They'll also catch Scott Kazmir in Tampa Bay on Thursday. And the Padres will draw Barry Zito and Matt Cain in San Francisco this week, but they'll miss Tim Lincecum. Rotation roulette. You can't beat it.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.