It took just one swing Tuesday night to spoil Rich Rodriguez’s surprise start and turn a raucous bench into a lifeless clubhouse.
The Padres, slapping themselves on the back for eight innings because of their starter-by-committee performance, were slapped in the face in the ninth inning when Atlanta’s Ron Gant hit a one-out, three-run homer over the left-field fence for a 4-1 Brave victory.
While Padre Manager Greg Riddoch was in his office expressing his pleasure over his bullpen’s performance, his players in the clubhouse were perplexed, wondering what happened in the ninth inning.
Steve Rosenberg, the Padres’ third pitcher of the game, had control problems in the ninth. After Greg Olson grounded out to the shortstop, Rosenberg walked Lonnie Smith on five pitches. And then he followed by walking Mark Lemke on four pitches. Just like that, he had walked more batters in a span of nine pitches than he had in his previous six appearances this season.
“I thought I was strong, but maybe I was a little tired, I don’t know,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not going to use that as an excuse. I’m not the type of guy to say I’m tired. Maybe next time I should.”
Mike Roarke, Padre pitching coach, came out to calm Rosenberg, but curiously, no one was warming up. Relievers Wes Gardner and John Costello kept waiting for the bullpen phone to ring. Even the Braves had difficulty believing what they were not seeing.
“I guess my role hadn’t come up yet,” Gardner said.
Just what is his role then?
“I don’t know, I just take the ball when he gives it to me,” Gardner said, “and I give it back when he asks for it.”
Riddoch, wanting to save Costello and Gardner for tonight’s game, said: “There are other games past today.”
It was obvious this was going to be Rosenberg’s game, win or lose. Rosenberg, who was unaware no help would be coming, fell behind on Gant, but worked the count to 2-and-2. He wanted to throw the next pitch, high-and inside, hoping Gant, .179, would take an awkward swing. It was high, almost eye-level, but Gant swung anyway.
He tomahawked the ball deep to left field. Kevin Ward went back to the fence, Gant started yelling, “Get out of here, get out of here, you’ve got to get out of here.”
The ball disappeared in the darkness, the crowd of 8,808 started screaming, and the Braves (19-15) won, snapping the Padres’ three-game winning streak.
It certainly turned out to be a game the Padres (19-20) could have won, but considering that they didn’t notify left-handed reliever Rich Rodriguez until 2 p.m. that he was starting, the Padre management was tickled just to be in the game until the ninth.
“Hey, who would have thought they’d go this far?” said Riddoch, elated with the performance. “They pitched their tails off. Rodriguez was just outstanding.”
Said Rosenberg, who for the fifth consecutive day was either pitching in a game or warming up in the bullpen: “After the game, Greg told me, ‘Good job, way to pick us up.’
“That’s the first time I’ve ever had a manager say that to me after a loss.”
The Padres never really were counting on winning. They spent most of the day praying for rain, repeatedly calling the weather service. The clouds looked ominous during batting practice, but by the start of the game, the sky became clear, and the Padres had no choice but to go with Rodriguez.
Rodriguez (1-1, 2.81 ERA) was the surprise pick. In his eight-year professional career, he had made 12 starts in 368 games, and none in the major leagues. The last time he started was during winter ball for Ponce in Puerto Rico when he made two starts. He had a no-hitter for eight innings in one start until Mario Diaz broke it up with a leadoff single. He also started twice for triple-A Las Vegas last season.
But the last time he was a regular starter?
You’ve got to go back to 1984 when he pitched for the University of Tennessee.
“I know it’s been a long time,” Rodriguez said, “but I wasn’t nervous at all. I knew I was going to start two days ago. They never said anything to me, but since I hadn’t pitched, and I knew they wanted to start a lefty against Atlanta, I figured I was the obvious choice.
“I even called my friends to let them know I’d be starting.”
Riddoch broke the non-news to Rodriguez when he arrived to the ballpark, and Rodriguez spent the afternoon sitting in the TV room, reading, “The Mental Game of Baseball.”
When the lineup card was posted, there were a few strange looks. His own team hardly paid him much respect, considering his name was misspelled on the Padres’ lineup card.
So what happens? He breezed through the Braves, allowing only two hits in a career-high five innings. Catcher Mike Heath was the only Braves’ player to get a hit, but unfortunately for Rodriguez, one of those happened to be a Heath’s first home run of the season in the third inning.
The Padres tied the game in the fourth on back-to-back doubles by Tony Fernandez and Tony Gwynn, but managed only two hits the rest of the game, spanning 21 plate appearances.
It will be Rodriguez’s final start for the Padres, and perhaps now, as Padre General Manager Joe McIlvaine said, normalcy will return to the rotation. Starter Dennis Rasmussen will be activated Thursday and is scheduled to start Sunday against the Houston Astros. It remains unknown who will leave to make room for Rasmussen, but there four options: demoting outfielder Kevin Ward to Las Vegas, or releasing third baseman Jim Presley, infielder Garry Templeton or outfielder Shawn Abner.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” said Abner, who’s in a one-for-40 slump.