McCullers on Bottom but Looking Up

Times Staff Writer

He's 24 years old, speaks with this country accent and walks with this backwoods swagger, so you expect maybe a fight.

You expect Lance McCullers, as he looks back on a summer mostly in ruins, to lash out. You'd expect a smart mouth, some broken bats, maybe a water cooler in pieces.

You get none of that. It's nearly autumn, and after what the Padre relief pitcher has been through this season, after all he's felt, there is little emotion left.

If there is fight, it is not in his eyes or voice. He walks quietly around his workplace, still giving his usual full effort, still arriving early and staying late but doing it as if numb.

Something more has happened this summer than a top young pitcher with a wondrous future disappointing himself and his team. If he gets out of this season with his skin, Lance McCullers will one day call it growing up.

"I've learned a lot," McCullers said Wednesday afternoon, one day before the Padres embarked on the season's last big trip, which begins tonight in Montreal.

He shook his head. This time last season, there was a shoulder on which to heave these problems, a shoulder belonging to Goose Gossage. Two years ago, same shoulder.

This season, Goose is gone. His place as the All-Star reliever was supposed to be taken by McCullers. Baby Goose, they called him.

Baby nothing. McCullers said he has finally learned there is no more Goose. No more shoulders other than his own. On the mound in the ninth inning with a one-run lead, there can be no babies.

And if he falls, so be it. McCullers said he has learned all about falling. He said that is the most important thing he has learned this season.

"I've learned about failure," he said. "I've learned I'm not perfect. I've learned that I have to go with my ability, no matter what happens, and quit trying to do too much. Quit trying to be something I'm not.

"I've learned about losing. I've learned to give it your best and then live with it."

The Padres say this education is step one.

Step two, however, is doing something about it. Truth be told, if something had already been done, the Padres might still be in a pennant race. Beginning with opening night in Houston, McCullers has blown a late-inning lead and game six times this season. Three more times, he has entered in a late-inning tie game and turned it into a loss. The Padres are 10 games out of first place. You figure it.

Little by little, his role has shrunk. From stopper to co-stopper to setup man to, finally, co-setup man. If there is a job title associated with lost hopes, that might be it. Co-setup man.

What it has come down to is: McCullers and left-hander Dave Leiper share the role of getting the game to Mark Davis. And with 36 games remaining, it has also come down to this, perhaps a final blow:

The Padres refuse to bring Lance McCullers into the game with the bases loaded.

Imagine that. McCullers must feel like a president whose country will not call him in case of an emergency.

"I can't do it, I won't do it," pitching coach Pat Dobson said bluntly. "Lance needs a base to work with. At least for a while, I will not recommend him with the bases loaded. He still needs breathing room."

From this depth, McCullers said his growing up has begun. The Padres agree.

"His problem," Dobson said, tapping himself on the forehead, "has been right in here.

"We're taking him back and letting him grow into his job, something he wasn't allowed to do before. We're telling him, go with what you've got, with your ability. Don't try to do too much. Just pitch. Don't wish the ball over the plate. Don't try to wish the ball on the outside corner. Just throw it there and see what happens."

What has happened in the past 22 innings is that McCullers, mostly in that setup role, is succeeding, allowing just one run on eight hits.

"Things have been going good lately," McCullers said. "Maybe that could be a good thing for me going into next year."

Not that he or the Padres would ever dare want him to forget this year.

"When your role model is Goose Gossage, the only thing you know is to throw like Goose Gossage," said Greg Riddoch, first base coach. "Progress will be made with Lance when he looks back and realizes he can have success pitching his way. He can be his own pitcher."

"I guess," McCullers said, "I'm learning to trust myself and my arm."

The Padres certainly do, or did. Too much, in fact.

On Feb. 12, 1988, the Padre brain trust fitted McCullers with those lead weights known as expectations, trading Gossage to Chicago. Manager Larry Bowa pronounced McCullers the new bullpen ace.

McCullers was still 23. He had pitched in the major leagues all of two seasons and been a relief pitcher all of 2 1/2. He had 26 big-league saves.

It didn't matter. His business card was stenciled. McCullers, the new Goose.

On opening night, McCullers blew a 3-1 lead and game in the eighth inning against Houston and Mike Scott.

Twelve days later he blew another eighth-inning lead, and another game, against San Francisco.

The beatings went on and on, each seeming more stunning than before.

The one most everyone remembers is July 3 in San Diego against St. Louis. There were two outs in the top of the ninth, the Padres were leading, 4-3, and looking for a three-game weekend sweep. With two strikes on Tom Brunansky and the crowd chanting "Sweep, sweep, sweep," McCullers gave up a two-run homer. Cardinals win, 5-4.

"I don't look at any game as worse than the other, except maybe opening night, when everything got off on the wrong foot," McCullers said. "To me, the whole summer has been a disappointment."

The boos and printed jeers have hurt, he said, but that is also part of the learning.

"I can't run from it--guys in regular jobs can't run from their problems," he said. "The fans can't accept that guys aren't perfect, particularly if you are making what they think is big money. And writers, it's been the easy out to pick on me, to blame everything on me. They have to pick on somebody.

"I understand all this. It's OK. I'll talk and not cause trouble, because that would only make things worse."

"You know what he's learning," Riddoch said. "He's learning himself."

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