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Thursday, June 17, 2010
San Diego continues to surprise

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan justifiably has a reputation for getting minds straight and careers back on track. But if you're looking for baseball's trendy new garden spot for pitching turnarounds, feel free to hang a left at the Gateway Arch and travel 1,858 miles due west.

Here we are, smack between Memorial Day and the All-Star break, and the San Diego Padres are hanging around the top of the National League West with a 38-28 record. At the risk of stating the obvious, it's not because they can mash.

Those dire spring training predictions about the Padres' offense weren't far off base. Adrian Gonzalez is having his usual productive season, with 15 homers, 44 RBIs and a .918 OPS, but he's a slugger in need of a wing man. When Scott Hairston ranks second on the team with seven homers, his brother Jerry ranks second on the team with 23 RBIs and Nick Hundley is the only other Padre with an OPS over .750, each Gonzalez plate appearance is an intentional walk waiting to happen.

How long can the Padres stay in contention behind a steady rotation, a lights-out bullpen and a flair for winning 2-1 and 3-2 games? They're keeping the debate alive longer than most people anticipated.

Mat Latos
Rookie Mat Latos is 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA in eight starts since May 7.
Pick a pitching category, and the Padres rank near the top of it. The San Diego staff leads the majors with a 3.06 ERA, 520 strikeouts and nine shutouts, and the bullpen ranks first with a 3.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Tampa Bay's bullpen is a distant second with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.72.

The Padres have thrived without Jake Peavy, who was traded to the White Sox for four young arms last July, and with no help from Chris Young, who went down with a strained shoulder April 7 and has pitched six innings all season.

In addition, spot starter and long man Tim Stauffer, who allowed one run in 23 1/3 innings before going on the disabled list, is working his way back on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Portland. Stauffer made news when he used an application on his iPhone to diagnose himself with appendicitis in May.

The knee-jerk inclination is to attribute every piece of good news about San Diego's pitching to Petco Park. From the moment Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin grumbled about the first batting practice at Petco, the place has had a reputation for crushing hitters' spirits and inflating pitchers' egos.

Truth be told, the Padres derive some comfort from knowing that lots of well-hit fly balls are going to die at the warning track -- if not sooner -- during 81 home games each season.

"I'll be the first to admit that the park does slant toward the pitchers. Absolutely," said manager Bud Black.

But the Padres don't exactly melt at the prospect of pitching in venues where it's not sunny, 72 degrees and spacious in the gaps. They're 17-13 with a 3.50 ERA on the road, and are limiting opponents to a major league-low .239 batting average in away games. Only Tampa Bay, at 3.09, has a lower team ERA on the road.

"I think the ballpark might be the most overrated aspect to it," Young said. "No. 1, you have talented pitchers. That's the first and foremost thing. I think a lot of it is attributable to the coaching staff. And every year we have a good defense and guys who can run the ball down in the outfield. Once you have a little success, it breeds confidence and carries over to everyone."

The Padres' commitment to pitching is reflected by a coaching staff that's baseball's answer to the Brookings Institution. Black is the only former big league pitcher currently managing in the majors. Darren Balsley is widely regarded as one of the game's unsung pitching coaches. The relievers love bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds, and bench coach Ted Simmons brings the perspective of a guy who played 1,771 games in the majors as a catcher.

The old general manager, Kevin Towers, was a former minor league pitcher with an eye for scoping out bargains, especially in the bullpen. The new GM, Jed Hoyer, holds the career saves record for Division III Wesleyan University.

Black has created a nurturing environment for pitchers, where a free exchange of ideas is encouraged and coaches are empowered to make their mark. If there's one overriding theme in San Diego, it's the importance of fastball command. That's not uncommon among big league clubs, but the Padres encourage their pitchers to throw lots and lots of fastballs in spring training and make the heater a focal point in bullpen side sessions.

"If you can't locate your fastball and don't use your fastball, you're not going to be a major league pitcher long term," Black said. "We're talking mechanics. We're talking mindset. The fastball is an aggressive pitch, and if you don't have an aggressive mindset as a pitcher, you're not going to throw your fastball with conviction."

While there's no definitive prototype for a Padres pitcher, the 2010 San Diego rotation would probably lead the majors in offensive rebounding. Of the five starters, Mat Latos and Jon Garland are listed at 6-foot-6. Clayton Richard is 6-5 and Kevin Correia and Wade LeBlanc are both 6-3. Then there's Young, who stands 6-10 and played hoops at Princeton.

"They're all very athletic, and if I ask them to do something, they're capable of doing it," Balsley said. "When you have guys who are athletic and smart, it makes for a pretty good pitcher."

Luke Gregerson
Reliever Luke Gregerson's streak of consecutive scoreless appearances ended at 13 on June 13.
Latos, an 11th round "draft-and-follow" pick in 2006, is less than a year removed from an appearance in the All-Star Futures Game, where he dressed in a pitching prospects' Murderers' Row alongside Kyle Drabek, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Casey Kelly and Madison Bumgarner. After the Padres summoned him last July, Latos experienced some good and bad days as a rookie. His stuff was definitely big league-caliber, but he also had a penchant for stewing over tight strike zones and misplays in the field.

When Latos reached his innings limit in September, the Padres told him to sit and watch how veteran pitchers dealt with setbacks and tuned out the distractions. Although Latos still shows flashes of immaturity, Balsley says his mound presence and professional demeanor are "light years" ahead of last summer.

In April, Latos shifted from the third-base side to the first-base side of the rubber, and that adjustment allowed him to take a straighter line to home plate and bury his slider down and in on lefties and away from right-handed hitters. In addition, he's done a much better job of maintaining his focus. With his lanky build, blond hair and bubble-gum-chewing energy, Latos has a touch of Florida surfer dude about him. But he's growing up in a hurry at age 22.

"Last September I got to thinking, 'What's the point of showing my emotions on the mound? All I'm doing is making myself look like an idiot or an immature kid,'" Latos said. "Granted, I'm still a kid, and I like to goof around. But my dad is 50 years old and he does too, so that's always going to stick with me no matter how old I am.

"I don't want my teammates to think that I don't care or that I've given up. I want them to know that no matter what the score is -- even if I'm getting lit up -- I'm not going to show any emotions and I'm going to be out there fighting for them."

Most nights, Latos and his rotation-mates keep the Padres in the game for six or seven innings and let the bullpen apply the clamps. Closer Heath Bell has converted 17 of 20 save attempts, and his setup contingent of Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams, Ryan Webb, Edward Mujica and Joe Thatcher has been untouchable as a rule.

Gregerson, acquired from St. Louis in a trade for Khalil Greene, is sporting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 41-2, and hasn't allowed a walk to his past 109 batters. That's the longest streak for a reliever since Boston's Jonathan Papelbon went 127 straight batters without issuing a walk in 2008. Gregerson's done it while throwing his slider more than 60 percent of the time.

"Luke's slider is fantastic," Balsley said. "It's a pitch that hitters just don't see when it's down in the zone."

Gregerson, who claims to have rooted for both the Cubs and White Sox during his formative years in Chicago, wears an ornate tattoo on his left upper arm with the names "Bette," "Lucille" and "Patricia." He designed the tattoo last winter as a loving memorial to his two late grandmothers and a favorite aunt who also died.

"I just love them because they were such great people," Gregerson said. "I think about them all the time."

The way Gregerson and his fellow Padres are playing, they're inspiring a few tributes of their own these days.

"I remember earlier this season when people were saying, 'Yeah, the Padres are winning games, but are these guys for real?'" Gregerson said. "And Tony La Russa told the media, 'I don't know what you guys are talking about, because these guys can play.' I thought that was pretty cool on his part."

Feel free to call the Padres baseball's biggest surprise, or a midsummer mirage if you're not completely sold. But you won't be calling them anonymous much longer.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.