Surprising Padres Do More With Less
SAN DIEGO -- For Americans under age 30, imagine life without cell phones, smartphones, Facebook or Twitter.
Watching home run-deprived foes of the San Diego Padres flop around lately, West Coast Bias contemplated YouTube generation's hypothetical misery.
Bud Black's soaring club gave the franchise its best April (15-8) since 1998, then continued the joyride on Sunday with an 8-0 victory over the ragged Brewers.
Picked by most to end up last in the National League West, the Padres, for now, are the league's most surprising team.
They won eight consecutive games and nine of 10 at their home ballpark, which, belying its beauty, is notoriously cruel to hitters.
How's this possible with a payroll that's not even one-fifth that of the New York Yankees?
In short, it's easy to win when the other guys almost never score. The Padres shut out Milwaukee in three of four games, a franchise record for a series of any length. In the run of eight home wins, Padres relievers allowed only two runs in 24 2/3 innings.
Let's get back to the scenario of no Facebook/cell phone/Twitter, which I presented to four young adults. Their responses:
• Mike, 23, San Diego: "Oh my gosh. The closest to that would be when I lost my cellphone. I was without it for two days and that was -- you feel naked."
• Ericka, 28, Spartanburg, S.C.: "It'd be sad. I dropped my cell phone in a cup of water so I didn't have my phone all of Thanksgiving weekend away from home, and I felt so disconnected from the rest of the world. Twitter and Facebook -- it allows you to stay connected."
•Jeremy, 29, Miami: "I don't really like being so connected. All of my friends would say the exact opposite. They're on Facebook all of the time. Even when they go to sleep, they write about it on Facebook."
• Katie, 26, San Diego: "I enjoy talking to people normally, rather than sending e-mails. I think it would be refreshing. A lot of my friends are very addicted to it where they wake up, and the first thing they do is check Facebook or e-mail."
Many baseball offenses are addicted to something called the home run.
Popularized by a fellow named Babe Ruth, the homer's been around a lot longer than Facebook.
It's cool and it's fast. One swing, one run -- or more if someone's on base.
Deprived of the home runs in San Diego, Padres opponents went into severe withdrawal. They appeared disconnected, discombobulated and disconsolate. If they had secondary skills to rescue them, they were scarcely evident. In the Padres' nine victories over the last 10 games at Petco, opponents scored 10 runs. Opponents hit three solo home runs in their nine defeats. Absent the home run, they put up only seven runs in 61 innings.
The cruelest moments were when hitters -- starting with those from the Diamondbacks and Giants -- swatted the ball hard enough for what typically would be a homer, then acted like someone took something from them when the ball was caught by a Padre.
"If you let it, it can get in your head a little bit," said the Padres' Scott Hairston, the rare hitter who has a good home run rate at Petco.
Meantime, the Padres, like our friends Jeremy and Katie above, went about things in different ways.
They pecked the Brewers to death on one chilly night, piling up 13 singles and no other hits in a 9-0 victory.
On another nippy night, the Padres had only one hit, yet defeated the Giants.
Other times, they turned to their much-improved running game that has the most stolen bases in the NL and ran to pivotal runs.
When their deep drives were swallowed up by Petco, Padres hitters did not fret and fume like Padres hitters of years past. They played baseball. Not great baseball. Not even good baseball offensively.
But good enough.
"Old-time baseball," Brewers manager Ken Macha called it.
"Pitching and defense," Macha added.
And a little more. "The Padres can hurt you with the stolen base," Macha said. "They've got disciplined hitters, they stay inside the baseball and don't do too much. When they get on, they make it count."
Said Hairston: "We know what to expect here. If you hit a ball well to right-center, you know not to expect a home run. We don't rely on home runs. You've got to put together good at-bats."
"We know the home run is not our ticket to winning games," said Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. "It's a bonus if we hit a two-run homer. To me, this is a better brand of baseball."
Gwynn said the triple, indeed, is the most exciting play in baseball -- said it before he legged one out on Sunday. Padres fans seem to dig watching their players motor, too.
"You hit a double and you're rounding second and you can hear the crowd noise building and they go 'ahhh' when you don't go to third," Gwynn said. "If you don't go, they're disappointed."
Wasn't long ago that the Padres were slow and scared as sheep on the basepaths. Under Black, a protege of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, the team is stepping on the gas pedal.
"The dynamics of this team have changed for the better," Hairston said. "Half our lineup can steal a base. We can hit and run. Or take the extra base. It's an aggressive of style of play. That just boosts our confidence."
Padres hitters of yore hated Petco. Khalil Greene, who turned into King Kong on the road from 2005-07, stopped taking practice on the field, moving his sessions indoors. Sluggers Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko griped so often in 2004 and 2005 that the team's manager, Bruce Bochy, banned all negative talk about Petco. The edict was broken within a week. The Padres fired three hitting coaches in a span of three years. One of them, Dave Magadan, looked like a zombie near the end of his tenure.
The best hitter on this Padres team, Adrian Gonzalez, who is the rare lefty able to hit home runs at Petco, once spent 15 minutes of batting practice lobbying Sandy Alderson, the team's CEO at the time, to move in the right-field wall. And that was after Alderson had brought the fence in right-center nine feet closer to home plate.
These Padres seems to have to come to terms with Petco.
"You have to have all the players understand that, what we're trying to do is win a ballgame," Black said. "Imagine that."
Save for carping about the home bullpen's size when the ballpark opened, Padres relievers have never complained about the ballpark for the same reason that lottery winners don't argue about ping-pong balls.
Unheralded relievers joined the Padres and became shutdown artists, usually at least one per year. The names change, but the trend hasn't. This year's bullpen has a chance to rival units of 2004-07 that were among the NL's best. Many of the same relievers led the team on its 37-25 tear to finish the 2009 season.
"The Padres are going to be tough because once the sixth inning comes, you're in trouble against that bullpen," said an NL scout on Sunday.
Asked if the Padres (16-9) will prove to be merely a blip on the spring radar when the six-month season unfolds, Padres bench coach Ted Simmons mentioned closer Heath Bell (above), setup men Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson and left-handed specialist Joe Thatcher and middle reliever Edward Mujica.
"The relief pitching, trust me, guaranteed, is no blip," Simmons said. "We have the capacity to win on any given night because our relief pitching is very good. So if we get to the sixth inning tied or ahead even slightly, we have a chance to win. It's not easy to score off those guys as a general rule."
Unselfishness aside, the offense remains a question mark. The Padres are in the NL's bottom half in several categories.
"The question becomes, can we score enough often enough to take the lead in the late innings?" Simmons said. "If we can make our relief pitching the game factor, then we have a chance to win that night. How often can we get them in there? That's the key. We're trying to score enough runs to keep our relief pitching in the game."
Petco alone, of course, isn't responsible for San Diego leading the majors in shutouts (six), or the 40 scoreless innings in the last 42 thrown by Padres pitchers, or the Brewers scoring only two runs in four games, which is the lowest total ever by a Padres opponent in a four-game set.
"Home runs have a direct relationship with elevated pitches," Black said, "and our pitchers are doing a good job of keeping the ball down, which is a strength of many of our pitchers. Jon Garland (2.06 ERA) has a good sinkerball. Clayton Richard (3.00) throws a heavy sinker. Wade LeBlanc (0.52) throws the changeup down. Kevin Correia (4-1, 3.86), all of his pitches are down. Gregerson's slider is down."
Left-handers Richard and LeBlanc, neither of whom has worked a full season in the majors, shut out the Brewers for at least six innings on consecutive nights. The last time the Padres got consecutive shutout outings from lefty starters was 1992, from Bruce Hurst and Craig Lefferts.
"Any time you have a pitching staff that's pitching well," said the Brewers' Randy Wolf, "regardless of what ballpark you're hitting in, it's tough."
Giving up four runs on Sunday to one of his former teams, Wolf is now 5-7 with a 3.84 ERA at Petco.
Wolf said a buddy of his on the Padres told him the team has "no quit" in it.
"They're not pushovers -- never were," said Brewers outfielder Jody Gerut, another former Padre. "If anyone treats them like that, then you'll get run over."