Ever since they beat the Chicago Cubs in the National League playoffs last year, everything has gone wrong for the San Diego Padres.

Their starting pitchers were knocked out early in all five World Series games against Detroit, allowing 17 runs in 10 innings.

Over the winter, matters got worse. Two Padres starters left town. Ed Whitson, a 14-game winner, departed for the free agent millions offered by the Yankees, and club strikeout leader Tim Lollar was traded for LaMarr Hoyt, who started this season with a 3-4 record and an ERA as big as his stomach.

Since the season began, NL batting champion Tony Gwynn has been in a slump, nobody on the team can steal a base and the outfield has been so injury prone that Baltimore castoff Al Bumbry started for a week.

The last straw came three weeks ago when Alan Wiggins went AWOL with drug problems that probably will end his career in a San Diego uniform. The last thing the Padres needed was to lose a leadoff-hitting second baseman who got on base 229 times last year and stole 70 bases.

With folks like Tim Flannery, Jerry Royster and Bumbry in the starting lineup; with former relievers like Andy Hawkins and Dave Dravecky now starting pitchers; with oldsters like Graig Nettles (40), Steve Garvey (36) and Goose Gossage (33 and not as fast as in the past) trying to hold their own, the poor Padres have been a shambles.

Well, not a complete shambles, maybe.

Actually, let's look at the standings here . . . the Padres are in . . . hummm . . . this must be a misprint.

First place.

Playing .611 ball.

You just can't trust these garbled early season stat sheets. Everybody knows Hawkins was 8-9 last year; he can't be 8-0 now.

And what about these old guys? Garvey can't be hitting .322 with six home runs; the senator only hit eight homers all of last year. Gossage can't be leading the league in saves; the man's lost his fast ball. Why, he's throwing sliders and sinkers these days. And Nettles. Come on. He can't play 28 straight games and be the league's second-toughest out.

Next you'll say Bumbry's hitting .387 and that Tim Stoddard's skinny.

One of the nicest things about baseball is that you sometimes feel like you can't even begin to figure it out.

The Padres are cruising along so nicely these days, almost giving brown- and-mustard uniforms a good name, that Hoyt even beat Dwight Gooden here, 2-0, Monday night. Their post-Wiggins record is 12-5, their season mark 22-14.

"We compensate well," said Garvey.

Indeed. To compensate for Whitson's defection, the Padres rewarded the 25-year-old Hawkins for his postseason valor with a starting job. Nobody really expected Hawkins to approach his October performance -- one run in 15 2/3 relief innings -- but he has. He's won every start, has a 2.89 ERA and has allowed only six walks.

"Good fast ball, good slider," said Nettles. "And, so far, I don't think I've ever heard him say anything."

Says The Hawk, in a long monologue, "I find myself repeating myself an awful lot these days."

The Padres have compensated for Wiggins' departure, and the loss of his speed, by turning to a power game.

Nice idea. San Diego has responded by hitting 50 points higher in May than it did in April (when Wiggins went one for 31). The Padres, not known for power, even lead the NL in slugging and homers.

"With Wiggins on second or third base with less than two outs, I just naturally found myself hitting the ball up the middle or to the opposite field," said Garvey. "Now, we realize that we're all going to have to drive the ball a little more. You try to adapt."

Terry Kennedy, who had a power slump last year, and Kevin McReynolds, who missed the Series with a broken wrist, both have adapted their way onto the list of league RBI leaders.

Carmelo Martinez, who looked like a goner when he hit only one homer in the last two months of 1984, is now sixth in the league in slugging.

The old guys are doing nicely, too. Nettles, who's somehow leading the league in walks, just got his 2,000th career hit. "I'm stuck in a Space Odyssey," Nettles said. "Got hit No. 2,001 and haven't gotten any more."

Gossage, who looked like a primary Padres worry in September and the postseason, appears to have made a career transition.

After the way the Tigers lit him up (13.50 ERA), Gossage has changed the book on himself. Those sliders and that new sinker make his fast ball, which is still in the low 90s, look as good as his old heat, which was in the high 90s. With a 2.16 ERA and 11 saves, the Goose isn't cooked yet.

These adaptable Padres keep making their adjustments before the league catches up. Gwynn, for instance, already has deduced that, "The league is going to throw me (far more) breaking balls this year. They were doing it before Wiggins left. I have to adjust."

Gwynn is batting .400 in his last 11 games and has his average back up to .312. Some slump.

With so much else falling into place, the Padres also are discovering that they may have the best defensive team in the NL. The legendarily hard infield at Jack Murphy Stadium that terrorized the Cubs last fall has been rebuilt so it's softer than a parking lot. San Diego now has the league's fewest errors.

One final bonus may be on the horizon. Before June 15, the Padres brass probably will decide that it won't let Wiggins play for them again after his second collapse into drug use.

Could an American League contender use a leadoff speedster at second base? Did someone mention the Orioles?

"If they tell me that," said General Manager Trader Jack McKeon, trying not to click his heels, "I guess I'll just have to make the best deal I can."

Awwwwh, pity these poor Padres.