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It’s a Hot Spring for Melendez : Baseball: Padre reliever had his usual fine April. Now, he’s just hoping to keep it up.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

April is the cruelest month for hitters who must face Jose Melendez.

The Padre right-hander breezed through the first month of the season this year at 3-0. Last year, he started 7-0 for triple-A Las Vegas. The year before, he began the summer 9-0 for triple-A Calgary.

“My lucky month,” Melendez said, smiling broadly. “April. Every year, I just win in that month.”

Melendez owns April like Luke Perry mesmerizes high school girls. Just as sure as Melendez will be wearing his wraparound Oakleys and a backward baseball cap--his trademark--he will be winning games.

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And, this year, saving the Padres’ bacon. As the club prepares to open a two-week, 11-game trip in Montreal tonight, their starting pitching has disappeared.

Mainly because the Padre team ERA has dropped to 3.74--10th in the NL--Melendez has been called to duty 14 times--the most of any pitcher in the majors. He has responded with a 1.52 ERA and his name has been invoked in reverential tones in the visiting clubhouse at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

After a three-game series April 20-22, the NL champion Atlanta Braves--who have some pretty fair pitchers themselves--couldn’t stop talking about Melendez, who had shut them down on one hit in two appearances that week. In four innings, Melendez struck out five Braves.

Likewise, the Cardinals took notice Saturday when Melendez pitched three scoreless, one-hit innings.

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“He’s impressed us the two years I’ve been here,” Cardinal Manager Joe Torre said. “He’s durable, too. He comes right at you. He’s got a great breaking ball.”

Said Padre Manager Greg Riddoch: “I think Jose feels he can do just about anything right now.”

The Padres claimed Melendez, 26, off waivers during spring training 1991. He has been in professional baseball since 1984 but, until the Padres acquired him, had pitched only 5 1/3 major league innings.

He was signed as a free agent by Pittsburgh in August 1983, then taken by Seattle in the Minor League Rule V draft in 1988.

He went 11-4 with a 3.90 ERA for Calgary in 1990 and was called up by the Mariners in September. But after 5 1/3 innings in three games, in which he compiled an 11.81 ERA, he was waived the following spring.

“I really didn’t get a chance,” said Melendez, who is from Naguabo, Puerto Rico. “I have a really good season in triple-A and then they don’t give me a shot.

“I really felt bad when I played in triple-A. I was waiting and waiting, winning and winning. And I don’t go to the big leagues.”

The Padres brought him to the big leagues May 31, after his 7-0 start in Las Vegas. In 31 games with San Diego last summer, Melendez pieced together an 8-5 record and 3.27 ERA. He started nine games.

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“He’s awesome,” Riddoch said. “He can start, long-relieve, middle-relieve, be the set-up man, go short if we had to. . . . That’s what makes him so good. He’s so versatile.”

Melendez, who throws a fastball, slider and change-up, said he felt at home right away in the Padre organization. He already knew some of the players when he arrived--Benito Santiago and the since-departed Ricky Bones and Joey Cora.

“Here, it was different,” Melendez said. “Everybody says hi. Everybody treats me good. The first day I come over here, I said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Mainly because of the language barrier, Melendez seems, on the surface, to be relatively quiet. But get him talking and the jokes come quickly.

“In the bullpen, me and him will sit on the mound talking, and he’s doing all the talking,” fellow reliever Rich Rodriguez said. “He’s a very funny guy.”

Melendez attributes his success this year to experience. He is facing hitters with whom he is familiar. Last summer, he was going against most NL hitters for the first time.

“Last year, I got behind hitters and then I got to come in with my fastball,” Melendez said. “This year, I’m throwing more strikes. That’s why I’m more comfortable.”

Mike Roarke, Padre pitching coach, agrees.

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“He’s always around the plate,” Roarke said. “He don’t walk many people. And he’s able to consistently get his breaking ball over. That helps.

“For the most part, he’s done a really good job.”

In 23 2/3 innings, Melendez has walked only three batters.

And in eight seasons, this is the first time he has been used exclusively out of the bullpen.

“I like starting better,” Melendez said. “I like to get myself ready to pitch for one day. Every five days, you pitch.

“But I don’t really want them to move me to a starter now. The way I’m pitching now and the way they’re using me . . . If they need me to start, I’ll start. No problem. But I’m doing good in the bullpen.”

For now, Riddoch and Roarke say that, despite the troubles of starters Craig Lefferts and Dave Eiland, they are not going to move Melendez into the starting rotation. It’s possible Melendez will eventually become a starter, but not this season, the Padres say.

“Normally, you really want to see a guy in a prolonged number of starts before you make a judgment,” Roarke said. “With the makeup of our ballclub, he can probably help us more out of the bullpen than starting right now.”

The biggest thing will be for the Padres not to wear out Melendez. They took precautionary steps last winter when they told him they didn’t want him pitching much in the Puerto Rican winter leagues, in which he has played since he was 18.

“I like to play there every year for my people,” he said. “The last three years in Puerto Rico, I’ve thrown 112, 115 innings. Last year, I threw only 45.

“Maybe this is the reason I feel stronger this year.”

Said Roarke: "(Winter ball) is fine when you first come in (to the majors), but if you play a whole season, and then a winter season, and then another season with no time off . . .”

But the Padres haven’t appeared to worry about wearing him out this season. Melendez’s 14 appearances work out to one appearance every other day. At his current pace, he will make 90 appearances this summer--surpassing the Padres’ current record of 83 set by Lefferts in 1986.

“I’m pitching every day and that’s good, you know?” Melendez said. “I feel good right now. I don’t feel tired yet. When I feel tired, I’ll say, ‘Hey.’ ”

Right now, it is the Padres who are saying, Hey!


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