Padre Pitchers Are Making Waves to Ride
He came with a 91-mph fastball, a 76-mph changeup and a 92-mph fastball, blowing Javier Lopez away with two out and the bases loaded in the eighth inning Saturday--maybe blowing away that Team of the ‘90s in the process.
The San Diego Padres are about to run the board on the Atlanta Braves, and who would have believed it?
Who really had any idea about these Padres?
“Everybody in the East is asleep when we play,” closer Trevor Hoffman said after striking out Lopez and closing out a 4-1 victory that gave the Padres an improbable and impressive 3-0 lead in the National League’s best-of-seven championship series.
“People just don’t know who we are, playing down here in this little surf city,” Hoffman said, “but we’re not looking for redemption in that regard. The 25 guys in the clubhouse believe in themselves and knew we were up for the task.”
The Padres are 6-1 in the postseason and have given up 10 runs in the seven games. The Braves had the bases loaded three times Saturday and failed to score, emerging with a team batting average of .200 and a per-game average of one--run, that is.
A Qualcomm Stadium crowd of 62,779 was rocking as the PA system pumped out AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” when Hoffman arrived in the eighth.
Three pitches later, on the Padre bench, normally impassive pitching coach Dave Stewart pumped his fist in reaction to the strikeout of Lopez.
“I’m sitting here trying to keep things in perspective,” Stewart said much later, alone at his locker.
“We’re one game away from the World Series, we’ve beaten a Houston team that had the best offense in the league and we’ve outpitched the two best pitching staffs in the league.
“We’ve accomplished a lot already, and it’s been like watching my kids out there. I don’t usually get emotional, but in that situation [with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a 2-1 game at the time], that was as big an out as we’ve had. Trev is simply the best closer in the business.”
Even in the East, of course, people probably knew about Trevor Hoffman and Kevin Brown, but the entire San Diego staff has made a statement amid the pressure of the postseason.
“I agree,” Stewart said. “We’re here, we’re aggressive, we know how to win. I said going in that we could pitch with the Braves, and I don’t think you can pitch better than we have. If you take that another step . . . well, it’s 3-0, and that’s where we are.”
One win from a four-game sweep, having won games started by Cy Young Award winners John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
“Baseball is a game of today,” Stewart said. “Those Cy Youngs were in the past, not this year. I’m not throwing mud at those guys. They have a great staff, but we have a great staff too. I think we’ve displayed that.”
Sterling Hitchcock, who came up so big in the decisive Game 4 victory over Randy Johnson and the Astros, provided five more tough innings Saturday before Donne Wall struck out Michael Tucker and Greg Colbrunn with the bases loaded in the sixth, and Hoffman left Lopez gasping in the eighth.
Wall opted not to talk later, but what does action speak louder than? San Diego’s off-season acquisition of Brown as the rotation leader was huge, but General Manager Kevin Towers also rebuilt the entire bullpen.
Middle reliever Wall and setup man Dan Miceli--two invaluable pieces of the puzzle--came in a trade with the Detroit Tigers and found a home after transient careers.
Miceli appeared in 67 regular season games with a 10-5 record and 3.22 earned-run average. His strikeouts of Bill Spiers and Brad Ausmus with the bases loaded in Games 3 and 4 of the Houston series were pivotal. Wall appeared in 46 regular-season games with a 5-4 record and 2.43 ERA. The 31-year-old right-hander came through the Houston system, and often was close to filling a major role with the Astros, but never quite got there.
“All he ever needed was a chance to pitch regularly in the big leagues,” Stewart said.
“He developed a lot of maturity and mental toughness during 10 years in the minors. He’s had a tough road. He understands the highs and lows.”
Saturday was definitely a high as Wall struck out Tucker and Colbrunn on 78-mph curveballs in that pivotal sixth.
“Once Donnie got us to the seventh, with this club you know you have a chance to win,” catcher Jim Leyritz said.
With Hoffman, it’s almost automatic. The Padres are 180-0 in games they’ve led after the eighth inning since the middle of the 1996 season.
That statistic almost went under in Game 1 before the Padres won, 3-2, in 10 innings. Hoffman had yielded a single to Lopez on a high changeup in the ninth inning, leading to a 2-2 tie. The closer ultimately delivered 43 pitches in a stint of two-plus innings, but Brown’s nine-inning effort in Game 2 and Friday’s day off, Hoffman said, gave his arm a chance to recover.
He yielded a single to Walt Weiss to open the ninth Saturday, but then struck out Gerald Williams and Chipper Jones before getting Andres Galarraga on a fly to right.
It was the three-pitch strikeout of Lopez, however, that had Stewart pumping his fist, a case of one of his kids having gone to school, perhaps. Hoffman said that after giving up that single to Lopez in Game 1 he recalled that “Javy had been my catcher in the All-Star game this year and may have had a better idea of how my changeup moves.”
This time, Hoffman started and finished the dangerous Lopez with fastballs to help put the Padres up, 3-0, of which he said:
“That looks insurmountable, but it’s like having Tony Gwynn down two strikes and you throw a good pitch and he gets a base hit. That’s a great club in the other clubhouse, and we’re not taking anything for granted.”
The surf city team knows this will have to be earned--as will respect.