Padres' return due to fundamentals
Club's second straight division title built on strong pitching
SAN DIEGO -- Pitching and defense, with just enough timely offense, lifted the Padres back to the forefront of the National League West in 2006. The difference this time was in the public perception of the achievement.Nobody was snickering at these Padres, unlike the 2005 division titlists, who finished 82-80. This time, they looked like champions, earning a second consecutive playoff berth for the first time in franchise history. "I think we've played to the best of our capabilities, when you look at the season as a whole," said staff ace Jake Peavy, whose early-season struggles with shoulder tendinitis removed the club's most dominant feature. "On paper, not many people picked us to win the division. Everybody on the team had to play the game together and to the best of their abilities to make it work, and I think it's happened." Peavy liberally praises the entire cast, from general manager Kevin Towers for making the most of his resources and pulling off shrewd deals, to manager Bruce Bochy for his cool hand, to saves master Trevor Hoffman, and all the way down through the ranks. "We had different people step up all year, and I think you have to give Kevin Towers a lot of credit for putting the right people in the right places," Peavy said. "The deals he made over the winter obviously were huge, but he also picked up guys over the course of the season who fit in just right -- guys like Todd Walker and Russell Branyan, Cla Meredith and Josh Bard. It's not like he had the Dodgers' money, but he found players we needed, and they sparked us. "We had so many guys come through. There were questions about Mike Piazza, and he answered them with an outstanding year. We had great production from our catchers. Mike Cameron solidified our club in so many ways in center field, and Dave Roberts was as good as any leadoff man in the game. Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Barfield have given us great defense and big hits all year. "As for the pitching staff, Woody Williams and Chris Young have been great, and Clay Hensley made great strides. Chan Ho Park gave us everything he had, and the bullpen was fantastic. Everyone knows about Trevor, but the whole group did an amazing job. "It's funny. I had my worst year personally, but it was the most fun I've had in the Major Leagues." Towers, who said that his expectations for the club were fairly high, kept trying to piece together a more powerful offense to go with the pitching. His search to find production at third base after the release of veteran Vinny Castilla never really ceased. "I think they have met my expectations," Bochy said of his athletes. "We've had to make a lot of adjustments along the way, but we've had the personnel to be able to do that thanks to the moves Kevin made. There were some questions in Spring Training about our pitching, but we felt we had the arms to get the job done. "I think this club's a little more rounded with pitching depth than last year, and we have more athleticism and speed with Cameron and Barfield. You look at the job Adrian's done at first, and Josh at second, and the production we've gotten from our catchers. ... I think we're a better club, and we've had to be, because the division is stronger this year."
Peavy and Bochy agreed that the pivotal moment in the season came when they rebounded from a five-run deficit at home in the ninth inning to draw even, then beat the Dodgers, 6-5, in 10 innings on April 30."That was huge," Peavy said. "We reeled off a nine-game winning streak and won 14 of 15. That put everything in motion for us." The day after that dramatic win, Towers pulled off what most people viewed as a minor deal, landing Bard and Meredith, spare parts in Boston, in exchange for catcher Doug Mirabelli. It turned out to be an enormously beneficial deal, ranking right there with the winter acquisitions of Cameron (from the Mets for Xavier Nady) and Chris Young, Gonzalez and Terrmel Sledge (from Texas for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and Billy Killian) in terms of positive impact. Gonzalez, with the loss of Ryan Klesko to shoulder surgery, got the reins at first base and had a breakthrough season, hitting with power and playing brilliant defense alongside Barfield, the poised, productive rookie second baseman. With Cameron providing all-around brilliance alongside Roberts and 2005 club MVP Brian Giles in a superb outfield, shortstop Khalil Greene was having his best season when he tore a ligament in his left middle finger in early August. In stepped the versatile Geoff Blum, the World Series hero of the 2005 White Sox, to handle the job with aplomb. Through it all, Bochy skillfully maneuvered and manipulated a deep, resourceful pitching staff.
PETCO Park has been a quirky ballpark in its short existence, with 2006 being its third season in operation. It seems that the Padres themselves are just now figuring out how to use the stadium to their advantage. Over their last three homestands, the Padres went 15-3, but before that run, they were 28-35 at home.There can be no doubt that PETCO Park is a pitchers' park, with such a spacious outfield. The deep gaps work to the pitchers' advantage, often robbing batters of what would be home runs in most any other park. Both the right-field and the left-field power alleys are 402 feet, with the right-field fence brought in nine feet after the 2005 season. It not only takes a pretty good knock to get the ball to leave the park -- sometimes, that doesn't even help. The ball can hang up in that thick marine layer in San Diego, keeping the ball in the park. The majority of the time, it is not a particularly loud crowd at PETCO Park. However, when nudged, the fans get into it. They need no encouragement when the ninth inning rolls around and Trevor Hoffman is taking the mound to close the game. "Trevor Time" in combination with the crowd noise would give any team a home-field advantage.
This has long been considered one of Bochy's great strengths as a manager. He works closely with pitching coach Darren Balsley and bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds and relies on daily reports from the training staff to determine which reliever is available that day and for how many pitches/innings.Bochy likes to have a set pattern, a routine, and stick with it. Refusing to bend to public pressure, he kept Scott Linebrink in the eighth-inning setup role in front of Hoffman in spite of calls to promote the sidearming Meredith, who put together a 34-inning scoreless streak. Meredith has primarily shared the seventh inning with veteran southpaw Alan Embree, while middle relief has included about a long list of right arms over the course of the season: Brian Sweeney, Scott Cassidy, Doug Brocail, Jon Adkins, Scott Williamson, Brian Sikorski, Rudy Seanez. Park and Williams opened the season in the bullpen, but they were soon elevated to the rotation when Shawn Estes injured his elbow and Dewon Brazelton struggled. "Our bullpen has been our backbone all season," Chris Young said. "All of those guys who have been down there have done the job for us, and they all deserved to be on the roster all year." Bochy is not given to emotional outbursts, nor does he overreact and bury a pitcher after a couple of bad games. "I think our bullpen is what has kind of separated us from the other clubs in our division the last two years," Towers said. "Boch has a real nice feel for handling the 'pen. He has the ability to look at the big picture." Nobody has a deeper appreciation of the manager's steady hand than Hoffman, whose 479th career save in the regular-season home finale against Pittsburgh vaulted him over Lee Smith. "Boch has a great feel for a bullpen," the all-time saves leader said. "You can't put a price tag on that; it's one of his biggest strengths as a manager. There's a comfort in knowing when you're going to be used, when you need to get ready, and that the game dictates those things. Guys have a chance to relax and see the game progress. "Boch has a sense, a great feel, for trying to allow guys to understand when they might have an opportunity to get in a game. The sixth, seventh -- that's when Cla knows he has to be ready. Liney's the last line of defense in front of me. When we get in those situations, we know what to do. "I have so much admiration for guys like Cassidy, Sweeney, Adkins, Brocail, Embree, the middle guys who don't have a defined role but know they always have to be on call. That's not an easy role, but it's important." Spoken like the true leader of a championship-caliber club.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.