Ward Proves Worth : Padres: Journeyman, almost sent to Las Vegas this week, hits game-winning home run against Giants.
Padre outfielder Kevin Ward was supposed to be in Las Vegas today. He was going to catch a flight in the morning, find a hotel room, and deliberate if he even wanted to continue playing the game.
“I was wondering if it was all worth it,” Ward said. “Really, I was thinking I might retire.”
Instead, he found himself on center stage Wednesday night in San Francisco, and with one swing of his bat, let the world know that he belongs in the major leagues.
Ward’s pinch-hit, two-run homer in the eighth inning not only gave the Padres a dramatic 5-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants, but provided his buddy, Craig Lefferts, with his first victory as a starter in nine years.
“I still can’t believe it,” Ward said. “I’m numb.”
It was only 24 hours earlier when Ward was told he was being optioned to triple-A Las Vegas and seriously was contemplating retirement.
“I know I’m a professional,” Ward said, “but I’m also human. I would have gone to Las Vegas, but I don’t know how long I could have stayed there.”
Ward was telephoned by Padre Manager Greg Riddoch on Monday night and told that he would have to stay behind in San Diego when the Padres departed for San Francisco. The Padres were going to sign free-agent outfielder Gary Pettis, and since they still were unable to trade away Thomas Howard, he was going to be the one optioned to Las Vegas.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ward said. “It was like, ‘What do I have to prove? It’s not like I’m 24 years old. This is my 10th year. If I go down there and hit .300, so what?’ ”
The worst, Ward said, was seeing the reaction from his wife, Christy. She broke down and started crying. Ward wondered aloud if it was worth continuing this line of work.
“How many times can you go to the emotional well?” Ward, 30, said. “I was so high for a week, making the team, and then being asked to go to the minor leagues. What can I say, it was the most emotional peak and valley I’ve ever had in my life?”
Said Padre right fielder Tony Gwynn: “We were all pretty down when we heard about it. We knew Kevin belonged here. Believe me, none of would want to go through what he did the last 24 hours.”
Ward, thoroughly dejected and disgusted, went to the Padre clubhouse and cleaned out his locker. He went back to his home, started packing his belongings, and comforted his wife.
“She was pretty broken up about it,” Ward said. “She has a job as a store manager, and wasn’t going to be able to go to Las Vegas with me. I could tell how much it hurt her.
They told me it might be a short stay, but what does that mean? Ten days? One month? Half a season?
“People think of baseball players, and they think of all the millionaires. Well, there are guys like me, too, who have to scratch and claw for everything they’ve gotten. It’s not easy on families, believe me.”
Ward, who had already packed his suitcase for Las Vegas, got his reprieve at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. It was John Barr, Padre assistant general manager. They had traded Howard to the Cleveland Indians, and he was ripping up Ward’s option papers.
By the way, could he make the next flight to San Francisco?
Ward shoved some new clothes in his suitcase, took out others, made the 7:30 flight to San Francisco, was in uniform by the ninth inning Tuesday, and hit the game-winning homer in the eighth inning Wednesday.
“What an amazing last 24 hours,” Ward said. “Maybe this one will keep me around a little longer. Each time they tap me on the shoulder you get a little gun shy.
“You think you’ve seen it all during your career, this is just another episode in my career.”
“It’s gratifying to show them that I do belong here.”
Certainly, no one was more pleased with Ward’s return than Lefferts, who won his first game as a starter since Aug. 26, 1983, when he was pitching for the Chicago Cubs.
The victory by Lefferts was sweet redemption for his first outing of the season, when he surrendered four earned runs in one-third inning against the Dodgers. That outing lasted 12 minutes, spanning 23 pitches.
This time, Lefferts allowed only seven hits and three earned runs in seven innings, and had only one bad inning.
“You know last time, I had a nightmare something bad would happen,” Lefferts said. “In my dream, I gave up two runs when I made a throwing error in the first inning, and they wouldn’t let me come back out for the second inning.
“It was a different scenario, of course, but the effect.
“This time, I slept like a baby.”
Lefferts still would be looking for his elusive victory if it was not for Ward. In an eerie matchup of pitchers with identical 108.00 ERAs, the Padres obtained only two hits and two unearned runs off Giant starter Dave Burba in seven innings.
Burba, who was on the verge of going to the minors if he had a bad outing, retired 18 of the final 19 batters he faced after his first-inning woes. Tony Gwynn and Tony Fernandez were the only Padres who obtained hits off him.
He was removed from the game in the bottom of the seventh for pinch-hitter Mike Felder, and resting comfortably in the clubhouse, hoping the Giants could cling to the victory.
Instead, the lead dissipated quickly when left-handed reliever Bryan Hickerson entered the game in the eighth.
The Padres, trailing, 3-2, opened the eighth when rookie shortstop Royce Clayton bobbled Kurt Stillwell’s ground ball. Lefferts was the scheduled batter, and immediately sat back down for right-handed Ward.
The Giants didn’t know much about Ward. They probably didn’t even realize he was on the team. After all, this is a 10-year journeyman who has spent all but a few precious months in the minors. His major league credentials included two homers and eight RBIs.
Hickerson immediately fell behind in the count to Ward, and with Ward battling at the plate, worked the count to 3-and-2. Hickerson, making sure he wouldn’t walk Ward, threw a fastball over the middle of the plate.
Ward hit it with all his might, and sent it over the left-center-field fence about 400 feet away for a two-run homer.
When Ward reached the dugout, you’d have thought he was returning home from war. There were hugs. There were tears. There were screams of rejoice.
“We couldn’t be happier for him,” Gwynn said.
The Padres hung onto the lead when reliever Larry Andersen pitched one-third of an inning, and Randy Myers pitched the final 1 2/3 innings for his third save of the season.
Perhaps most pleasing to the Padres was Lefferts’ performance. Although they publicly never admitted their concern, the Padres knew they couldn’t tolerate too many outings like Lefferts’ debut.
“He’s going to be successful,” Riddoch said. “We weren’t going to play the game-by-game thing with him. I don’t want him looking over his shoulder for anything.
“Shoot, I went with Razzy (Dennis Rasmussen) last year for nine in a row, so I have patience.”
Lefferts, who had not allowed more than a single baserunner in any of the first four innings, striking out five of six batters at one point, was victimized only in the fifth when Matt Williams hit a two-out, two-run triple.
“I was really kind of disappointed in myself,” Lefferts said, “because I made a mistake in that inning. For me to be successful as a starter, I can’t make mistakes like that.”
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