LOS ANGELES – Maybe it looks it, but the San Diego Padres don’t play small ball.
It’s smaller than that.
Whatever’s left behind when small ball packs up to go home, that’s what the Padres play.
It’s what remains when artificially-enhanced home runs are mostly tested out of the game, and the owner’s marriage goes south in a community-property state, and the lousy economy drags ballpark attendance with it, and the home ballpark plays bigger than a long-term airport parking lot, and the team payroll gets chopped in two inside 18 months.
If the Padres were to water their game regularly, it might bloom into small ball.
Until then, they ride an offense that does not hit for average or power, an offense that does not reach base, an offense that, therefore, does not score many runs.
In fact, the only thing the Padres offense does is score just enough to win.
It comes dressed in its khakis, appearing non-threatening, and often enough scores a run or two more than it probably should. Propped up by a pitching staff with the best ERA in the game, held steady by a defense that gives away little, girded by a little grit and a lot of basepath abandon, and bound together by Adrian Gonzalez’s(notes) four at-bats a game, the Padres wring every extra base from their legs and hearts.
That might not sound like much, but they’ve sustained it for six weeks, going on seven. They arrived at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night having lost four of five games, having scored three or fewer runs in 11 games this month, and – ahem – having spent every day since April 20 in first place in the NL West.
Given their various deficiencies at the plate, any one of which would be plenty to kill an offense, the Padres – their rookie general manager Jed Hoyer, their manager Bud Black, their coaches Rick Renteria and Dave Roberts(notes) – plotted this spring to run the offense by running the offense.
A quarter of the way through what was presumed to be a season of irrelevance by the sea, the Padres have outrun slide-steps and outfield relays and balls in the dirt to wring every run from a lineup that has collectively batted just .237. Their 49 steals lead baseball. The Padres haven’t led the National League in steals in 11 years, and in their history have done it only twice. Just two years ago, they were last in the league in stolen bases, just as they were the season before, and that while endeavoring to build a team that would suit Petco Park, which plays with the largest ballparks in the game.
Meantime, management’s efforts to improve run production worked – the Padres were last in the league in scoring in 2008 and second-to-last in 2009. Sadly, at that rate, they’d have a decent offense by about the time Gonzalez was retiring … from the Boston Red Sox.
Power hitters were not simply too pricy, but likely to have their power blunted by the big park and heavy Pacific air. Indeed, even as Hoyer was encouraging his staff to promote aggressiveness on the basepaths, it appeared he was positioning himself to trade Gonzalez, the organization’s most productive hitter. In that event, the strategy was less about philosophy preferences than it was survival.
Black set the program in spring training. Renteria, the first base coach, and Roberts, a special assistant in baseball operations, hit the back fields of Peoria, Ariz. with small groups of players. On dewy fields with the sun low and rising behind them, they’d learn aggressiveness over recklessness, tendencies over assumptions, and when to run and why.
From 82 steals last season, the Padres are on a pace for 200.
“Philosophically, we think the Padres organization needs to become based on our park, based on our personnel, and based on our personnel going forward,” said Black, who witnessed the breakneck running game as a coach in Anaheim. “Speed is becoming sort of back in vogue, both offensively and defensively.”
As for the Padres’ arrival in it, Black grinned.
“This,” he said, “is nouveau riche. This is avant-garde.”
So Will Venable(notes) (who had a triple, two doubles and a single in the Padres’ 10-5 victory) is on a pace for 40 steals. He’d never stolen more than 21 in professional ball, and that was three years ago in the Texas League. Tony Gwynn(notes), in spite of batting under .200, is on pace for 32. The Padres could have 10 or more players reach double figures in steals, including catcher Yorvit Torrealba(notes), who’s barely stolen double figures in his career.
“It’s a credit to the kids in here,” Renteria said. “It’s been kind of a process. The reality is we have kids willing to embrace it.”
That’s the way he saw it, anyway. He’d stolen a few bases here and there in the minors, and a few more in the big leagues, generally when the pitcher forgot about him. At his current rate, from the clean-up spot, he’s on pace for 40.
“The biggest thing is just the freedom,” Headley said. “Pretty much everybody on the team has a green light. That’s because we spend so much time in preparation on when to run. There is no fear.”
Against the Dodgers on Wednesday, the Padres stole four more bases, the most the Dodgers have allowed in more than a year. Forty-two year-old Matt Stairs(notes) had one. They advanced on a wild pitch and a balk. It all reminds Padres second baseman David Eckstein(notes) of the Angels’ emerging running game a decade ago, except in the Padres’ case they’re waiting on the power, too.
“I see that style of game as who we are,” he said. “The best part about it is, no one has really started hitting yet. That shows you the capability of being able to take advantage of what’s there. Look, it definitely isn’t the prettiest games out there, but we are finding ways to win.”
So the Padres pitch and defend – “Without that, none of this works,” Eckstein said – and run, and spend another day in first place. Maybe this is a fragile 24-16, but it’s 24-16 (and, by the way, 61-41 since late July of last season), so something’s working.
“We don’t get frustrated when we’re scoring two or three runs a game when we’re winning them,” Headley said. “Whether we’re getting a lot of credit outside this clubhouse doesn’t matter to us. The teams we’re playing know they’re in for a 27-out battle.”
Nothing small about that.