Wojna Gets Off to Great Start : Pitches Padres to a 4-1 Victory Over Montreal

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Ed Wojna was sitting over a plate of baked chicken and mashed potatoes--major league food--when teammate Craig Lefferts slapped him on the back.

“Congrats,” Lefferts said.

Wojna: “I’ll take it.”

Lefferts (laughing fiercely): “Darn right, you’ll take it.”

Until last Thursday, Wojna was eating minor league food, which he can testify is not as good. But in his first start as a Padre Sunday, he ate up major league hitters. Wojna went seven innings and gave up only three hits and one run.

Meanwhile, Kevin McReynolds chipped in with his 20th home run and a circus catch in left field; Tony Gwynn finally got a big hit, and Lance McCullers picked up his first save in the post-Goose era--all this in the Padres’ 4-1 victory over the Montreal Expos in front of 18,296 at Olympic Stadium.


Afterward, Wojna heard praise from his pitching coach and his manager, who had sent him down to Triple-A this spring figuring the kid needed work. Wojna used to have a tendency to throw a pitch, get the ball back from the catcher, take off his hat, wipe off some sweat, take a walk around the mound, think about what he should throw next and then finally get rid of the ball. In other words, he was being very tentative, not quite sure of what he was trying to accomplish. When the Padre players heard he was pitching Sunday, they fully expected a three-hour game.

Wojna’s fastball may not be faster, but his delivery sure was. Boom, boom, boom--he’d pitch, get the ball back and pitch again. Galen Cisco, the pitching coach, stood up on the top step of the dugout during the first inning and said: “My, he’s changed.”

Manager Steve Boros said later: “He (Wojna) looks much more confident, more aggressive and he’s working faster. And when he got behind in the count, he’d get upset with himself and be determined to do something different. In the past, we didn’t see that from him.”

Wojna, 26, explains his progress simply: “I knew what I had to work on when they sent me down. . . . It was either work on those things or think about another career.”

Only the first and seventh innings were shaky for him Sunday. In the first, Expo first baseman Wallace Johnson led off with a line drive--right at second baseman Tim Flannery. One out. After Mitch Webster popped out, Tim Raines rocketed a line drive--right at third baseman Graig Nettles. Three outs.

Wojna had a 4-0 lead in the seventh, but two singles and a walk loaded the bases for catcher Dann Bilardello. Wojna threw him a slider, and Bilardello chopped it toward shortstop Garry Templeton, who charged the ball, scooped it and started a double play. A run scored, but Wojna returned to form and forced pinch-hitter Jim Wohlford to ground out. Rally over.


But Wojna had tired, after throwing more sliders than usual. Catcher Bruce Bochy had found the slider to be Wojna’s most successful pitch, and he kept calling for it. Wojna’s forearm tightened, and Lefferts started the eighth in relief.

Lefferts’ first pitch was slammed to left. McReynolds retreated, touched the outfield wall with his right hand to brace himself and then leaped. At the top of his jump, he found the ball--one long out.

The Expos put two runners on anyway, and McCullers was summoned with two outs to face pinch-hitter Luis Rivera. McCullers immediately threw two sliders--important because most batters expect fastball pitchers to come out throwing fastballs. Goose Gossage--the man McCullers is replacing--sometimes comes out throwing fastballs and gets blasted. McCullers knew better.

So he had Rivera guessing on the third pitch, and here came the fastball. Rivera popped up to first.

Still, McCullers isn’t comfortable replacing Gossage this way.

“It’s fun to have this role and everything,” McCullers said. “I mean, you always come in with the game on the line. It’s exciting. But I wish I hadn’t got it the way I got it. Goose taught me a lot in the bullpen and I wouldn’t be throwing as well without him. He used to tell me to slow down and not throw too hard in the bullpen or else I’d have nothing left for the game. I just wish I hadn’t gotten it this way.”

The offense Sunday came courtesy of McReynolds and Gwynn. One was a surprise; one wasn’t. McReynolds, for instance, was batting .391 with five homers against Expo pitching before Sunday. So when he hit a solo home run in the second inning it was kind of expected.


This was his 20th home run of the year, though, and when Gwynn told him “Way to go,” McReynolds said: “I’ll get 30 (homers).”

Later, McReynolds elaborated: “As of now, I’m satisfied with 20. But I’ll try to hit 30. . . . Actually, 25 would be nice, but we’ve still got 30-something games left. In the past, if I hit home runs, I’d get them in streaks. Twenty-five’s realistic, but if I catch on fire I could hit 30.”

Gwynn, meanwhile, had been 0 for his last 17 against Expo pitching before Sunday and 0 for his last 9, period. In the third inning, he came up and drove in two runs with a double to left-center.

“Yep,” he said, “I didn’t go Oh for Montreal.”

Padre Notes

Tony Gwynn was overcome with anger after Manager Steve Boros put on the hit-and-run sign with Tim Flannery on first in the eighth inning. The Padres led 4-1 at the time and Gwynn was still battling to break out of a three-game slump. Instead, he was forced to swing at a bad pitch and chopped one out in front of the plate. “I normally don’t bitch in the newspapers, but that really upset me. . . . At least give me one swing. Don’t make me swing at something over my head. It’s tough enough for me to hit the damn ball anyway, and then we got a hit-and-run sign. I’m trying to find myself right now, and I don’t need that.”