— SAN DIEGO - Combine the last 60 or so games of 2009 with the first 25 games of 2010 and one of the best teams in MLB is — surprise! surprise! — the Padres, a club also with the second-lowest payroll behind lowly Pittsburgh. Yet with a 16-10 mark, San Diego finds itself alone in first place in the National League West.
What in the Padres is going on here?
“Collection of all facets (of the game) playing well, especially the pitching and defense,” explained Bud Black, San Diego’s ultra-mellow skipper who is the National League’s version of Joe Maddon, minus the hoodie. “It’s just been good all around baseball.”
The Padres' superb early season pitching, which ranks third in baseball with a 2.76 ERA, was on display in its weekend series against Milwaukee, as San Diego shut out the Brewers to win three of four games, surrendering a total of just two runs across 36 innings. No small feat considering the Crew entered the series with the most runs scored in the National League. But no staff has tossed more shutouts in baseball than the Padres, and the club ranks among the top defensive clubs in the National League. In fact, up until Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to Milwaukee, San Diego pitching had posted a streak of 26 consecutive innings without allowing a run.
Largely fueling San Diego’s hot start has been its core of homegrown talent, which has included a resurgence from pitchers like Tim Stauffer and Wade LeBlanc, and hitting from Chase Headley. With a payroll under $40 million, nearly a third of the roster was drafted by the organization, a trend fans in America’s Finest City haven’t seen reap success since the last of the 1980s and early 1990s when the Puerto Rican parade hit town with Benito Santiago, Roberto Alomar and Joey Cora. Make no mistake, this isn’t the 2005-2007 Padres, which came within one strike of three-peating as division champs behind mostly a group of veterans acquired via free agency or trade, minus original signs Jake Peavy and Khalil Greene.
“If you watched us play (late) last year, this shouldn’t be (a surprise),” explained second baseman David Eckstein, one of the Padres' clubhouse leaders and an elder statesmen at 35. “We’re definitely not household names, but everyone shows up and plays hard.”
The Padres lead baseball in pickoffs, thanks mostly to LeBlanc, a southpaw drafted out of Alabama, who’s nabbed five runners alone already this season while failing to surrender a run in 16 1/3 innings. Stauffer, San Diego’s No. 1 selection in 2003 out of Richmond, and a starter turned reliever, has yet to allow a run in 15.1 innings, and Luke Gregerson, acquired from St. Louis for Greene two years ago, has tossed 10 innings of scoreless ball.
Also trending is Black’s penchant for teaching to a club finally built for its pitcher-friendly home ballpark where defense and speed win. A southpaw on the Royals' 1985 World Series team, Black served as Mike Scioscia’s pitching coach from 2000-2006, helping the Angels win the World Series in 2002 alongside bench coach Maddon. He replaced long-time Padres manager Bruce Bochy in 2007 and for the first time since moving into spacious PETCO Park in 2004, his team is truly an athletic bunch, validated by ranking among baseball’s leaders in steals and the fact they’ve won nine of their last 10 at home, and boast an 10-3 overall record off San Diego Bay.
“(Bud’s) stoic, mild-mannered, intellectual, but behind that he looks at himself as a teacher,” explained Dave Roberts, a former Padre now serving as a special assistant to the team, coaching base running. “When you’ve got guys who are impressionable and want to learn, you’ve got something special.”
Added Padres right fielder Will Venable: “In spring training (Black) told us, ‘Don’t worry about what you’re hearing from the outside; there’s not a lot of belief (in this team). But you all saw what happened last year when you played the right way.’ Guys are holding themselves accountable.”
San Diego posted a 37-25 mark over the last 62 games of 2009, third best in the National League and second in the division to only Colorado. That’s particularly impressive when you consider the Padres sent 21 players to the disabled list — the most since 2002 — and also used 24 rookies over the course of 2009.
“What last year showed was that these guys are big leaguers,” said Eckstein, who played for Black with the Angels. “That success gave them the confidence and they’ve fed off that (into this season).”
Continuity reigns, with much of the same nucleus in place from late last year, although first-year Padres general manager Jed Hoyer added veterans with World Series experience, including starter Jon Garland, catcher and former Rockie Yorvit Torrealba, and bench veterans Jerry Hairston Jr. and Matt Stairs.
One notable exception from a year ago is third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, who was shipped in the off-season to Oakland for Scott Hairston, the first major move by Hoyer, a Theo Epstein disciple. The deal enabled Headley to move from left field back to his natural position at the hot corner, and as the cleanup hitter behind two-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez.
But it was also quite the gamble by Hoyer, who replaced long-time GM Kevin Towers, who was fired by new CEO Jeff Moorad last October. Although not as athletic as Headley, Kouzmanoff, a Padres fan favorite, had won the Gold Glove in 2009 and averaged nearly 20 home runs and more than 80 RBI over three seasons at PETCO Park. In contrast, Headley, San Diego’s second round pick in the 2005 draft out of Tennessee, hit just .262 in 2009 with 12 HR and 64 RBI in his first full big league season.
“To be honest, I just never felt right last year,” said Headley, who turns 26 on May 9. “I never felt like I was the hitter I knew I could be.”
Headley went back home to Knoxville after the season and in early December started studying film from his 2007 season in Double-A San Antonio when he batted .330. The video showed he needed to move his hands down the barrel of the bat four to five inches from where they were in 2009, so could have more time to adjust quicker to a pitch.
After bringing a .236 average into June a year ago, the change has paid immediate dividends with Headley among the National League’s leaders in 2010 in batting average, runs, hits and stolen bases. His defense at third base has also been sterling. On Friday, Headley made a difficult slow roller down the line look easy, firing barehanded off balance to first base for the out.
“(Headley’s) maturing as a player,” Eckstein commented. “He’s not letting little things affect him like one at-bat affecting the next one.”
With few immediate reinforcements in its minor leagues, Headley’s young teammates will need to both stay healthy and start producing to remain a contender — and continue to play scrappy like Eckstein. Already, former All-Star pitcher Chris Young and switch-hitting Nicaraguan shortstop Everth Cabrera have hit the disabled list. Regulars Venable, Kyle Blanks and Tony Gwynn are each batting under .250, and 22-year-old starter Mat Latos needs to mature in the rotation, adding support to the impressive April of starters Garland (.072 ERA in his last four starts), Kevin Correia (4-1, 3.86 ERA) and lefty Clayton Richard (1-2, 3.00 ERA) who was acquired for Peavy last July.
So can the Padres really keep this up? In arguably a weak division, Headley thinks so, and fans may just have a better read in another month, with San Diego playing 13 games against division opponents in May starting this week with Colorado and next week with San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“We’re a young team, yes,” Headley emphasized. “But we’re a young, talented team and we’re proving it.”