"We put our pitchers in a lot of tight games, a lot of high-pressure situations."
Early in the morning of Feb. 12, as Heath Bell drove from his home in Port St. Lucie, Fla., to the Padres' spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., a pothole on Interstate 10 interrupted his trip. With air seeping from one of the tires, Bell guided his new Nissan Altima off the freeway and into the town of Fort Stockton, Texas, about 300 miles west of San Antonio.
Bell found a mechanic to replace the busted tire, and as the guy examined the car, he pointed to a Padres' duffel bag in the backseat. "Ken Caminiti stopped here with a flat tire once," the mechanic said. "He won the MVP for you guys that year."
Of course, Caminiti had other secrets when he was voted National League MVP in 1996. But as Bell pulled out of the garage and back onto I-10, he couldn't help but hit the gas a little harder. "I know I'm not going to win the MVP," the 30-year-old righthander says, "but it made me think, This might be a pretty good year after all."
Pitching for San Diego requires a lot of positive thinking, partly to make up for the lack of run support. Last season the Padres had the best ERA in the majors and the third-worst batting average and on-base percentage. Improbably enough, after a winter in which they improved their rotation but not necessarily their lineup, that gap could widen. "I'd be lying if I told you I don't get frustrated sometimes," says ace Jake Peavy, who nonetheless signed a very reasonable three-year, $52 million extension in the off-season. "But we have guys who are able to win games 1-0 just as easily as they win games 7-5."
Everyone can agree that pitching prevails, but no team takes the axiom as literally as the Padres. Their manager, Bud Black, was a pitching coach. Their stadium, Petco Park, is a pitching paradise. Their rotation includes a reigning NL Cy Young winner (Peavy), a 2007 All-Star (Chris Young) and future Hall of Famer (Greg Maddux). Their most significant free-agent acquisition, Randy Wolf, is the No. 4 starter.
San Diego appears a lot more serious about building its staff than its outfield. The club started last season with Terrmel Sledge and Jose Cruz Jr. sharing leftfield. They plan to start this season with Scott Hairston, Chase Headley and Jody Gerut taking turns there. There is more certainty about who will play center and right, but how Jim Edmonds and Brian Giles, both 37, will perform is another question. Edmonds (shoulder) and Giles (knee) have each undergone surgery in the past 18 months and have seen steady declines in their production over the last four seasons. "Fortunately," says catcher Josh Bard, "our pitchers give us a lot of leeway. I wish it wasn't this way, but we put them in a lot of tight games, a lot of high-pressure situations. I think that's part of what makes them great. They are used to always being locked in. Every game is like the playoffs."
The Padres' habit of living on the edge, however, finally caught up with them last season. After having the majors' highest winning percentage in one-run games in 2005 and '06 (.584), San Diego slipped to 23-26 (.469) in '07. And now the club is in danger of seeing the rest of the division pass it by. The Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Rockies all have more money and better prospects in their farm system.
Still, despite a recent history of subpar drafts, general manager Kevin Towers has been clever in the trade market, having acquired his best hitter (first baseman Adrian Gonzalez) and second-best pitcher (Young) in 2006 for a declining starter (Adam Eaton) and a setup man (Akinori Otsuka). And Bell came from the Mets in November '06 in a swap of spare parts. Last season he had a 2.02 ERA (the lowest of any pitcher with more than 90 innings), struck out more than one batter per inning and held opponents to a .185 average.
Bell would be wise not to read too much into his meeting with the Fort Stockton mechanic, but he's the kind of pitcher who keeps the Padres' wheels turning.-- Lee Jenkins
Issue date: March 31, 2008