The Best of the West?

San Diego Padres

The 16th July 2009, on a balmy evening in Southern California and my first trip to a baseball game.  I had seen a few games on TV in the 1990′s when Channel 4 tried to introduce baseball to late night English viewers.  This though was my first time in the big leagues.

I am not going to pretend I know everything about baseball.  It has been a slow learning curve, and there are many intricacies of the game and particularly the pitching that still go right over my head.  However after my first live game last year and many subsequent games on TV in the US and here in Costa Rica, I am a convert.  In the same way that a cricket game and the soporific tones of the commentators and their stories of long-forgotten incidents from yesteryear can wash over you and captivate you, baseball lured me in.  The game I saw that night finished 1-10 to the Colorado Rockies.  Their opponents and the home team were the San Diego Padres.  In truth they were terrible that night, as they had been for most of the season and propped up the National League West, but they became my team.

A few games later the Padres began a run of games that turned them around from one of Major League baseball’s worst teams to one of the best.  From July 27th 2009 to the end of that season they had a 36-25 record.  Many thought this was a fluke as a team who had nothing further to lose began to play freely and enjoy themselves once more.  There were a few changes in July 2009, such as replacing their hitting coach Jim Lefebvre with Randy Ready and a Major League debut for right-handed pitcher Mat Latos.  With the Jake Peavy and Chris Young (the Padres best two pitchers) on the long-term disabled list, Mat Latos stepped up and became the first pitcher in Padres history to win 4 of his first 5 games.  Cy Young award winner Peavy was later traded to the Chicago White Sox for four other pitchers, among them was Clayton Richard, who joined Latos in the rotation also performing well as the Padres finished strongly.

Petco Park

The Padres play at Petco Park in downtown San Diego, one of the largest baseball fields in the Major Leagues, which makes it doubly important to have quality pitching staff.  Batters will always struggle to hit the ball into the stands at Petco and when the Padres lost Peavy and Young without adequately replacing them, they didn’t have the firepower to hit their way out of trouble.  But then smart trades, keen, quality young players and renewed confidence in themselves enabled the Padres to change their fortunes last year.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 2010 season and the Padres once again had to prove that they were for real.  With the second lowest payroll in baseball, they were many experts’ tip for the bottom of the NL West.  At the end of last season General Manager Kevin Towers was fired and replaced with Jed Hoyer, who had previously been at the Boston Red Sox.  Hoyer brought in Scott and Jerry Hairston, catcher Yorvit Torrealba and starting pitcher Jon Garland to add to the roster.  Most of the talk was of how long the Padres would be able to hang on to All-Star first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez and All-Star closer, Heath Bell.  With an emphasis on quality pitching and solid defence the Padres have continued their good form and have led the NL West for most of this season.  They currently stand 2.5 games ahead of their closest rivals the San Francisco Giants.  They have the third best wins/loss record in the Major Leagues, the best earned run average and the second best fielding percentage.  The talk of when the Padres would lose their best players has gone quiet, indeed rumours of them adding another bat abound.  Gonzalez leads the team in home runs and runs batted in and is the one genuine star on the roster.  Lesser known players have stepped up this season too, third baseman Chase Headley started well, catchers Nick Hundley and Torrealba (currently on an 11-gamehitting streak) are hitting regularly and 30 year-old Chris Denorfia has been a revelation since his promotion from the minor leagues.

The big story of the Padres’ success so far is the quality found in their bull-pen.  So far they are 51-8 when leading or tied in the sixth inning.  If the Padres’ starting pitchers can get to the end of the sixth they hand over to the best bull-pen in the NL.  The trio of Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams and Bell normally ensure the Padres win the game.

This quality form has many thinking of the play-offs.  The Padres in truth have struggled against their division rivals from Colorado and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The next 3 weeks will be a significant test for the Padres as they play 2 series against the Dodgers plus one series each against the Giants and the current worst team in the NL West the Arizona Diamondbacks.  If the Padres come out of that run of games still on top of their division then I fancy them to make the play-offs.

Stay classy San Diego.

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