Cast of characters

Heath Bell (center) leads this motley crew of lights-out relievers. Dan Busta for ESPN The Magazine

On July 21 at Turner Field, the Padres defeated the Braves 6-4 in 12 innings. The game was a fun house- mirror look at the Padres' season: The seven shutout innings from six relievers epitomize San Diego's path to the top spot in the NL West. The relief corps, headlined by All-Star closer Heath Bell (above, center) and featuring (clockwise from bottom) Edward Mujica, Joe Thatcher, Ernesto Frieri, Mike Adams, Tim Stauffer and Luke Gregerson, leads all major league bullpens in ERA, strikeouts and WHIP.

Want more advanced numbers? After discovering that strikeout rate, closer efficiency and team defense are the three numbers that correlate most with postseason success, the stat gurus at Baseball Prospectus came up with a metric called Secret Sauce that combines each team's ranks in those categories. The lower the number, the better. Through August the Padres' Secret Sauce score was 7. San Diego and Tampa Bay (13) were the only teams with scores below 20.
And while they torment the NL, San Diego's relievers are having fun. The group calls itself The Pen-itentiary and designed a T-shirt with the NL logo behind bars that reads "The Pen-itentiary" on top and "Got 'em on lockdown" below. And inspired by shortstop David Eckstein's wife, Ashley, who voices one of the characters in Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, the bullpen has adopted a Star Wars motif. The younger guys, most often Ryan Webb, carry a Yoda backpack filled with snacks out to the pen before every game. Embarrassing? Yes, until you consider last year's line of luggage: Dora the Explorer.

To help the world understand this group, San Diego manager Bud Black agreed to rewatch the July 21 road game with The Mag in a video room adjacent to the Padres' dugout. Black clicked through each inning batter-by-batter, beginning with the departure of starter Jon Garland after five frames with the Padres trailing 4-2. Black and some of his staff explained the thinking behind the six pitching changes, shedding valuable insight on the inner workings of baseball's best bullpen.