LOS ANGELES – No doubt about it. Stubborn ol' Brad Penny is back, brusque and obstinate as ever. Yet this time he's winning in spite of himself, and so far nobody's been embarrassed.
Penny was especially curt with the media after his two starts since the All-Star Game. But the Los Angeles Dodgers only care that he won both, including overcoming a shaky beginning in an 8-6 victory over the New York Mets on Saturday, to improve to 12-1.
He's the rock on a staff beset by injuries and mediocrity, so everyone has shrugged and left him alone, even when he kicked an object in the dugout after being lifted with two on and one out in the seventh inning. Moments later, Dodgers reliever Joe Beimel got pinch-hitter Paul Lo Duca to ground into a double play, ensuring a victory for Penny, who is off to a better start than Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton or Orel Hershiser ever had. Reliever Phil Regan (1966) is the only other Dodger to begin a season 12-1 since the team moved to L.A.
The Penny-will-be-Penny uneasiness began five days earlier when he walked away in a huff after being asked by Kevin Pearson of the Riverside Press-Enterprise about his poor second half last season.
"It's got nothing to do with last year," Penny said. "This isn't last year … I'm done talking about that."
He said even less Saturday, responding to softball questions with terse answers. Of course, last year was last year, no one can dispute that. It's just that last year Penny started similarly well, then imploded on the mound and exploded at everyone from umpires to manager Grady Little.
It's natural to wonder whether he'll relapse, and maybe that notion grates at him. After all, he has come a long way. Penny did a lot of thinking during the off-season while sitting around the campfire at his ranch near Tulsa, Okla. He also sharpened his mechanics, stopped tipping off his breaking ball, and came to spring training significantly lighter in weight and mood.
The result has been a career year. He is the first Dodgers starter to win seven in a row since Kevin Brown won nine straight in 2003. His only loss came May 18 to the Los Angeles Angels, and he has given up more than one run in only three of his last 11 starts and in only six of 20 this season.
He is tied with Carlos Zambrano for the National League lead in victories, is third with a 2.42 earned-run average and has held opponents to a .240 batting average.
And when he needs support – as he did Saturday when the Mets scored two runs in the second inning and two in the third – an offense that normally rations runs like lost hikers doling out sips of water opened the floodgates.
"Every time we give Brad a cushion, he keeps the other guys from scoring," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said.
Allowed Penny, at his most verbose: "You're going to give up runs, and when you do, you just have to keep throwing."
He's become a relentless strike-thrower, relying less on his 95 mph fastball and more on a slow curve and split-finger changeup. It's not in Penny's nature to give in to anybody. Five weeks ago in another victory over the Mets, he believed Shawn Green had relayed pitches to hitters while running the bases and verbally blasted the veteran outfielder to his face. Green didn't play Saturday despite batting more than .400 lifetime against Penny.
Maybe intimidation is a necessary part of Penny's game. Maybe he can dial in just the right dose of surliness. Maybe he won't melt down.
Certainly, he doesn't want to entertain the idea.
"There are going to be days when it's not your day, and this was one of them," he said.
Actually, it was his day, and the Dodgers', and perhaps that's the point.
Crusty Penny and Lucky Penny, one and the same.