Last place is the worst place to be during baseball's September stretch drive, but the San Diego Padres and the Pittsburgh Pirates are convinced that the last shall eventually be first.
A few months ago, a National League championship series between the basement Bucs and the pitiful Padres would have seemed unrealistic before the end of the century.
The Pirates appeared headed for a fourth-straight season in the NL East cellar; the Padres' dreadful 12-42 start had fans speculating they might be the worst big league team since the 1962 New York Mets. There were jokes that Padres rookie manager Larry Bowa's tenure would be measured not in months but in minutes.
Look who's laughing now.
The Pirates, armed with some of baseball's best young pitchers, have been one of baseball's hottest teams since July, twice mounting seven-game winning streaks. They recently won 18 of 21. The Padres, loaded with talented young hitters, are 48-43 since June 12, a record bettered in the NL West only by division-leading San Francisco.
"Sometimes adversity is good for you," Bowa said. "I wouldn't wish what happened to us on your worst enemy. Sometimes kids do well in the minors and think things will be the same in the majors. But it's not that easy. All those kids we throw out there are better now than they were in April."
Pirates Manager Jim Leyland agrees.
"Sometimes your young players have to learn how to lose before they learn how to win," said Leyland. "We're not out of the woods yet, but our kids are learning how to stay after it. We're a heckuva lot closer to being a good team now than we were three or four months ago."
Bowa and Leyland labor in the shadows of high-profile general managers, "Trader" Jack McKeon of San Diego and Pittsburgh's loquacious Syd Thrift, who have received considerable credit for their teams' turnarounds. But both teams mirror the competitive, sometimes combative, nature of their managers.
Bowa and Leyland weren't particularly talented players. Bowa managed to milk 16 major league seasons out of marginal ability and high-strung intensity. Leyland caught in the minors for seven years, never batting higher than .243, but acquired a reputation for being a tireless worker and teacher.
Surprisingly, the one quality that neither Bowa nor Leyland possessed while playing -- patience -- has been their biggest asset as managers.
Bowa battled with his young players early in the season and questioned their motivation. But even after he nearly traded punches in a Pittsburgh clubhouse with Stanley Jefferson, he refused to divert from his plan to stick with his youngsters.
Now, a lineup filled with young talent such as Jefferson, Benito Santiago, Shane Mack, John Kruk -- and, of course, NL batting leader Tony Gwynn -- has developed into one of the most solid in baseball. Bowa's stubbornness has paid off in stability.
"I don't think I'm as tough on players like Jefferson or Mack as I was in April and May," Bowa said. "It's a roller coaster. The only way to become consistent is to learn by mistakes. The first thing my wife always tells me is, 'Remember when you played.' That puts in back in perspective."
"The young kids have finally gelled," said shortstop Garry Templeton, one of the few remaining veterans from the Padres' 1984 NL champions. "They got the confidence. Just basically, we started playing better as a team."
The Pirates quickly fell into their customary sixth place in April, but Leyland didn't give up on youthful pitchers such as Doug Drabek, Mike Dunne, Brian Fisher and John Smiley. Drabek, once 2-11, has won six of his last eight starts and Dunne, acquired in the Tony Pena deal from St. Louis on April 1, is 8-1 in his last 10 starts.
"Since July, we've pitched great," Leyland said. "I'm not one who believes in a great deal of momentum, but I do know the better you pitch the better chance you have of winning."
Andy Van Slyke not only has brought a consistent bat with him from St. Louis, he's played a Gold Glove-caliber center field. Jose Lind has been the regular second baseman for only three weeks, but Thrift is already calling him the slickest-fielding second baseman since Bill Mazeroski.
"We've finally got the talent in here. Now we're learning how to win," said Thrift, who traded away veterans such as Rick Reuschel, Rick Rhoden, Johnny Ray and Don Robinson to acquire what may be the majors' youngest team.
Although the Pirates have a chance to finish out of last place for the first time since 1983, Leyland hasn't personally challenged his team to do so.
"I don't think that's the most important thing to do, like some people do," Leyland said. "The most important thing we have to do is go out and win games and the standings will take care of themselves. I have a good feeling about this club, but you play your way out of last place by winning enough games."