Padres bet on pitching

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

They are a good-pitch, can't-hit bunch, a loogie spat in the face of baseball's obsession with offense, a test case for the pitching-wins-championships axiom.

"We are who we are," said Kevin Towers, the general manager of the San Diego Padres, and they happen to be the biggest wild card – literally – in the National League playoff race.

Because the Padres win with pitching, and top-to-bottom quality pitching is somewhere between the dodo and bald eagle in terms of endangerment. No team in the NL, and perhaps no AL foe, either, can match the Padres' playoff rotation and stacked bullpen.

Rattling off the names won't necessarily quicken the pulse of hitters: Jake Peavy, Chris Young, David Wells, Clay Hensley and Woody Williams in the rotation, with Scott Linebrink, Doug Brocail, Alan Embree, Jon Adkins, Cla Meredith and Trevor Hoffman anchoring the bullpen. And still, executives and scouts agree that what Padres pitchers lack in intimidation they more than make up for in performance.

Among the Padres' top players, five of them put up higher on-base-plus-slugging percentages away from their home stadium, Petco Park. And the numbers aren't negligible, either, with four of them.
Player Away Home
Brian Giles .755 .790
Adrian Gonzalez .871 .789
Mike Piazza .944 .730
Josh Barfield .880 .617
Mike Cameron .795 .840
Dave Roberts .788 .774
Khalil Greene .873 .628

Which makes the case of San Diego's offense all the more dichotomous. At home, Padres hitters are some kind of awful. They average fewer than four runs per game at Petco Park, and while that is not enough to make them the worst offense in baseball – San Diego scores almost five runs per game on the road, which lends some credence to the whines about the home-field disadvantage – they are rock bottom's next-door neighbor.

So it is on the pitching, then, on Peavy to duplicate his six shutout innings against Cincinnati on Wednesday while the offense tries to muster at least a couple more 10-run nights like it managed Wednesday and also Sunday at San Francisco.

"It's a little late in the season to think there's going to be a major turnaround," Towers said. "We're going to have to outpitch our opponent. We're not going to end up in a slugging match.

"We hope not."

It's an honest tack, one that tempers resignation with optimism. Towers did see the Houston Astros make the World Series last year with a subpar lineup and superb pitching. And aside from the New York Mets, who, depending on Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine's health, are either a shoo-in or in big trouble, the NL offers about as many options as an In-N-Out menu, only without the quality.

Riding Peavy, who over his last 10 starts has a 2.44 earned-run average and 64 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings, is possible, and he hasn't even been the Padres' best starter in the second half. That honor goes to Hensley, the second-year right-hander who was the Padres' top pitcher down the stretch last year, too, somewhat of a dubious distinction considering San Diego won the NL West with an 82-80 record. The 6-foot-10 Young has matured into an excellent No. 2 starter in his second season. And when Wells arrived from a trade with Boston, Towers said, "It infused some energy into these guys. The players saw what the Dodgers did at the deadline. We had our hired gun."

Still, for all of the bluster about the Padres' starters, they are only 16-21 since the All-Star break. The real stars have come from the Padres' bullpen.

Hoffman, who turns 39 in October, is having his best year since 1998, and Embree, 36, might seem ageless as well if he weren't left-handed. Front and center is Meredith, the 23-year-old stolen from the Red Sox, along with catcher Josh Bard, for Doug Mirabelli.

All because Tim Wakefield needed someone who could catch his knuckleball.

Meredith has not given up a run in 33 2/3 innings, the best mark for a rookie since Orel Hershiser. You'd need an electron microscope to see his ERA. Though Meredith doesn't throw particularly hard, his sidearm delivery unfurls a heavy sinker that plays well anywhere.

Padres hitters, on the other hand, seem to have an issue at home, so much that if San Diego makes the postseason, Towers said, "In a perfect world we'd be happy to open on the road."

Since it opened in 2004, Petco has been an albatross for the Padres. In its first season, it played as the second-toughest stadium in which to score. Last year, it dipped to the worst, with the Padres scoring nearly 20 percent more runs on the road, and this year, Petco is 28th of 30.

Catcher Mike Piazza, the team's best power hitter, has an on-base-plus-slugging of .944 on the road. At Petco, it's .730. For every hitter like Mike Cameron, whose OPS actually rises at home, there are second baseman Josh Barfield (.880 road, .617 home) and shortstop Khalil Greene (.873 to .628).

"I don't know if it's mental," Towers said. "It's just a tough park. It's tough on everybody. We're a little more exposed, playing 81 games there.

"The ball seems to stay in the air a little longer. For some odd reason, balls hit in the gap are run down by guys. I really don't know. It's a very, very good pitchers' ballpark."

Which is the important thing, right? Without their pitching, the Padres aren't within sniffing distance of a playoff spot. Right now, they carry a 1½-game lead in the wild-card trot and trail the Los Angeles Dodgers by the same margin for the division title. They've got Piazza and Cameron and Wells and Williams, all playoff tested, though they're not terribly fixed on proving that experience has any bearing on the postseason.

They'd prefer to test the theory that pitching wins championships. It's their only shot. And it might be a pretty good one.