Spring ends the sting for Hoffman

Tim Brown

PEORIA, Ariz. – Going on five months later, Trevor Hoffman finally got the ball back.

He wasn't alone on a mound that stretched some 50 feet in a corner of the Padres' spring training facility here. There weren't any hitters. Just a line of pitchers across from a line of catchers, Hoffman like the rest notifying his arm it was time again.

It would have to do, this crisp Saturday afternoon having replaced a playoff game that never came, a 13th inning against the Colorado Rockies that never ended, Matt Holliday in the general vicinity of home plate and the Padres having spent the last of a good season and a pretty decent wild-card lead.

And it was Hoffman, who'd turned a career on those final outs, who stood out there at the end. He'd lost before, been unlucky before, been just terrible before, but almost always there'd be tomorrow, and he'd own tomorrow, of that he knew. However, he'd given back two leads in three days, one at the end of September, the other at the start of October, when tomorrows become rare.

Tony Gwynn Jr. of the Milwaukee Brewers hit a darned good changeup in Game 161 and the Rockies hit just about everything in the play-in, meaning that when Hoffman looked to the plate and raised his glove, there'd be no ball coming.

Going on five months later, the timer clipped to an ice bag on his right elbow showed 0:00.

"It was uncharted territory, that's for sure," he said. "You knew it wasn't necessarily going to go away.

"Obviously it hurt and nothing you could do about it."

As he spoke, water drained from beneath the bandage, rolling down his forearm and over his wrist, freeing itself at the tip of his right pinkie. Hoffman had surgery after the season. Doctors removed two bone chips and smoothed over a bone spur, then sent him off to pitch into his 40s, to stack more ninth innings on his 524 saves.

He also had thought through his mechanics and decided, after 13 or 14 years pitching exclusively from the stretch, he might reintroduce a windup, long forgotten in the interest of deception and command, the qualities that will carry him to the Hall of Fame.

"Well," he said, "always looking for an edge."

He's certain he has another two or three seasons in him, though his contract runs out at the end of this one, right about the time he'll turn 41. He's certain there will be other evenings in late September and early October, set up for him. Last fall still has its place, but far away from the next one.

"Time heals," he said. "I guess that's it."

They reassembled to start over, to play away from those final weeks and days. The Padres, on Sept. 20, had been a half-game behind the NL West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks, but in the wild-card race were 2½ games ahead of the Phillies and 4½ games ahead of the Rockies. Two days later, on what general manager Kevin Towers still calls "Sunday, bloody Sunday," they lost left fielder Milton Bradley and center fielder Mike Cameron to injuries. And, fact was, there simply was no diverting the Rockies, whom Towers called, "one of the hottest teams in the history of the game."

The Padres lost six of their last 10 regularly scheduled games, then lost again in the play-in game, when Hoffman warmed and re-warmed and finally found a lead to protect in the 13th inning. He looked spent, and it had been weeks since the Rockies missed a chance like that.

"With two games left, I thought we had a chance for the best record in the National League," Towers said. "Two days later, we're in third place in the division. That's hard to fathom."

Where, exactly, that leaves the Padres is undetermined. The division, in places such as Arizona and Colorado, is growing up around them. The division, up in L.A., easily will outspend them. As camp opened, Towers was poking around for a left fielder, maybe something like Matt Murton or Gabe Gross. He was hoping Jim Edmonds still had a season left in him in center field. He was filling the back end of his rotation with injury risks and tryouts.

Like a well-conceived changeup that nevertheless is hooked into the right-field corner, these are issues largely forgotten in the early days of spring, when, going on five months later, they all get another ball. Across the country, the Mets treated their September with a $150-million pitcher. In San Diego, they do what they can, they mend and smile, and they get the ball to Hoffman.

"You become, I don't want to say hardened, but you realize those types of things happen," manager Bud Black said. "My perspective, this is all part of what we do. Wins and losses. We got beat. It doesn't make it any easier, but we all know that that happens.

"Not speaking for Trevor, but in his situation, you don't achieve what he's achieved over his career, over 500 saves, 40 years old, pitching at the level he's pitched at, without having the mental toughness and fortitude to get past this."

So Hoffman stood again among them, sturdy, relentless, back at it, after going on five months.

"It just good to be back in a clubhouse," he said, "that's for sure."

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