MESA, Ariz. – For Jake Peavy, the next few months will be spent in the same manner as the last few, covering the narrow and thorny ground between good and great.
He's crossed it before, twice before, both on his way to becoming one of the dominating pitchers in the game and then, in an oddly inconsistent 2006, on his way back.
So, the footsteps he traces are his own, the fastball he aims to the inside corner has been just there before, the results of it all have been his to summon.
"I feel like I've grown," he said, "like I've learned a lot in that time."
Peavy took the ball Friday afternoon for his third spring start for the San Diego Padres. Three weeks from his sixth big-league season, he remains the youngest pitcher in their rotation, at 25. Granted, his prospects for that improved when the Padres signed Greg Maddux and David Wells. Yet it holds that he may not have reached his prime production years and already has led the National League in strikeouts once (2005) and ERA once (2004) and has 57 career wins.
Beyond that, scouts and general managers swoon over his ethereal qualities; his "stuff," his "makeup," his "mind for the game."
Which left them wondering just how his ERA came out of the 2's for the first time in three seasons and into the 4's, despite another high-strikeout, low-walk and high quality-start year, and how exactly he lost 14 games, no matter the run-support issues.
As explanation, Peavy himself seems to have arrived at his once-ailing right shoulder, which kept him from throwing between starts for at least the first couple of months following his World Baseball Classic appearance and at midseason was pumped full of C\cortisone. He'd refused to sit out a week or two, and in fact made 32 starts for only the second time in his career, grinding straight through to an ineffective division series start against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Maybe the gap between good and great is the length of a shoulder tendon or the width of that needle carrying inflammation relief. Maybe it's the great cutter, followed by the great break. And maybe Jake Peavy simply ran out of breaks the moment his shoulder went achy, so for the first time in years run support even was a factor.
"The line between being good and being great is in those games where it's hanging in the balance," Padres Manager Bud Black said. "You make a pitch, a play's made behind you, a line drive is caught. If you're consistently in those types of games and you execute more pitches than not, things swing your way."
Peavy stood Friday under a high sky, his shoulder – he said – perfectly sound. While some Chicago Cubs fans waved banners and others lounged on beach towels on the outfield knolls, Peavy sought the corners of the strike zone with loud grunts. He threw 66 pitches. His fastball generally hung around at 90 and 91 mph. He sought situations for his changeup, then to loosen his slider and tighten his cutter.
When it wasn't just so, and the outside corner for a left-handed hitter such as Cesar Izturis proved elusive with a changeup, he'd snap at the return throw from catcher Peter LaForest and curse the ball's disobedience. He'd allow four runs in 2 2/3 innings against the new and improved Cubs lineup, but he was better than that and he knew it.
He's pretty sure he can trust his shoulder and arm again, which is more than he could have said going on a year ago.
"The velocity just wasn't there," he said. "And if the velocity's not there you better be sharp. But then I wasn't throwing bullpens between starts, so it's really hard to stay sharp."
In late July, his record was 4-10 and his ERA was 5.15. He'd rally to win seven of his last 11 decisions. Even then, it was clear he was a different kind of Jake. It turned out, he probably needed to get off the shoulder for a while, he said, "instead of trying to bear through it."
"I know he didn't feel that great in a number of starts," Black said. "But he kept taking the ball, recording his strikeouts, and pitched his 200 innings. You can't pitch 200 innings without pitching well at times. The potential for a breakout season where everything falls together – the wins, the ERA – is coming. It doesn't happen overnight for a lot of guys. If he's going to be more consistent, for me that starts pitch to pitch. Just stringing pitches together."
So he returns healthier to a season that could look very familiar to the Padres. They scored the fewest runs in the NL West last season, then lost Mike Piazza and Dave Roberts to free agency. They don't have a true leadoff hitter or an established cleanup hitter, but they should pitch from the first to the ninth innings and catch the ball.
Peavy could be the critical man, both for the Padres and in the West.
"I'd never look at it as a burden," he said. "The bottom line, I want to get back to those '04 and '05 seasons."