Saturday, June 25, 2011

Luebke

Cory Luebke, the lefty pitcher who starts for the Padres tomorrow, is many things to many people.

In tiny Maria Stein, the Ohio town where he grew up, the lanky 26-year-old is a source of pride and diversion. Everybody in Maria Stein knows that Luebke's dad works as a laborer for Crown Equipment, which makes lift trucks. Go to the courthouse and you'll find Cory's mom, a clerk.


You won't find any stoplights in Maria Stein, a burg near the Indiana border, but when the Padres are playing, there's more surfing there than at Windandsea Beach. Folks surf the internet or their TVs in hope that Padres manager Bud Black will call on their Cory. "They follow me on the MLB package," Luebke says.

They track him in person too, no matter how far away the Padres are playing, as if Maria Stein's reach were that of a giant city, not a rural home to about 2,200 people. "It's crazy," Luebke says of the Steiners, smiling. "It seems like every city we go to, one of them pops in."

Luebke's success also pleases scouts such as Jeff Stewart and Bill Gayton, and Padres minor league pitching coach Mike Couchee. Goodwill is part of it, but Luebke's rise affirms their judgments. To some degree, Luebke reflects well on an oft-maligned Padres farm system that also sent Mat Latos and Tim Stauffer into this rotation.

It was Stewart who recommended Luebke to his Padres bosses despite a flaw in the pitcher's delivery, and it was Gayton who heeded Stewart's advice and drafted the Ohio State junior in 2007, with the 63rd pick. At the time, the Padres knew they'd have to change Luebke's delivery someday. The lefty had a bad habit of dropping and slinging his lead leg in a way that sapped power and accuracy. Sometimes, he even caught his cleats on the mound before planting his lead foot.

"His stuff was good across the board, so we popped him fairly early in the draft," says Gayton, now with the Cardinals. "We felt he would be a starter and remain in that role. His makeup tested good. Jeff said he was a good person that had work ethic, so there were a lot of positives."

Part of the sell was Luebke's athleticism, which would make it easier to fix the flaw. At Maria Local High School, nicknamed the Flyers, Luebke had played quarterback in the fall, and both guard and forward in the winter.

The Padres allowed Luebke to pitch short-season ball without tweaking his delivery. Out the chute he went 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA for Eugene, but the following summer after graduating to the hitter friendly Cal League, Luebke struggled. The Padres used the "phantom DL" to remove him from competition so Couchee and Luebke could attack the leg flaw.

"We decided to really try to knock it out," Luebke said. "Mike Couchee worked hard on it. It's something that, once we got it ironed out, things have been going better for me."

By the time Luebke reached the majors last September, non-Padres scouts were saying he could become better than a No. 5 starting pitcher. As such, he represented an intriguing pupil for the three Padres pitching coaches in the majors who noodled on what would be best for his development.

Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley decided late in this year's spring training that Luebke, who had started a few games for the Padres last season, should move to the bullpen as a replacement to the injured Joe Thatcher.

It comforted both Black and Balsley that bullpen coach Darrel Ackerfelds, one of the best in the business, would be guiding Luebke through his first gig as a full-time reliever.

Ostensibly the main reason for the move was to have a lefty in the bullpen. But Black and Balsley said several times that Luebke would benefit as a starter from his time in the bullpen. Starting was his calling, they also said.

***

Keeping Luebke on the team spared him regular exposure to the bruising Pacific Coast League, which was on the verge of becoming far more taxing for Padres prospects unlucky enough to pitch there. The Padres had called Portland, Ore., their Triple-A home through the 2010 season. For years, pitcher friendly conditions there nurtured several pitchers, Luebke among them. But when the Portland Beavers fell on hard times financially, the Padres moved their PCL home to Tuscon starting this year. A pineapple can could bat .300 in Tucson, and similar conditions favor hitters in other PCL haunts. Among those is Salt Lake City, where Luebke fared so poorly in a game last summer that a non-Padres scout, stumped by the fuss over him, couldn't write up Luebke as a prospect. Some pitching prospects can weather life in the PCL. Others lose confidence and good form. Petco Park, conversely, nurtures a pitcher's confidence. It's especially hospitable to lefty pitchers who can keep the ball out of the left-field seats.

Luebke justified the move to relief. He has given the Padres a 3.23 ERA in 39 innings across 29 outing. He took his lumps in early April, but since allowing six runs to the Reds on April 12, he has been Steve Howe-like with a 1.65 ERA in 25 games. He struck out 35 over those 32.2 innings. Safe to say, such results build confidence.

Tomorrow, he returns to starting. He draws the lefty-laden Braves.

Maybe you would've preferred Luebke in San Diego's rotation all along. Luebke himself prefers to start. But, perhaps as a good employee should, he says the relief work paid several dividends. Here are three: 1) The urgency of the job forced him to attack hitters in new ways, notably with more first-pitch sliders; 2) Because the move to relief put him on the team, he became more comfortable with the major league life; 3) He sharpened his top two pitches -- fastball and slider -- in games and developed his curveball and changeup in bullpen sessions.

"If anything, relieving has helped to develop my pitchers more," he says. "Starting, you get your one day to throw a 'pen; where, relieving you don't get extended as much so every day I'm out there working on all four pitches."

The Padres could've had Luebke pitch as their No. 5 starter and gone with an all-righty bullpen. A lefty isn't essential to a bullpen. Some of San Diego's better bullpens, in fact, didn't have a lefty.

The Padres gave thought to the potential negatives to moving Luebke to the bullpen.

"We talked about, 'Are we hurting him development-wise because he's not pitching in the minor leagues?' " Balsley said. "But there's a big difference between pitching in the major leagues and pitching in the minor leagues. I think he's learned a lot more by pitching out of the 'pen here than pitching in a minor league rotation."

Black, who worked as a reliever early in his major career before establishing himself as a starter, acknowledged that if Luebke had remained a starter, it may have helped him to develop his secondary pitches. But it would've forestalled his major league education, the manager said, because those starts likely would've come in Triple-A.

"Every day that he walks into the clubhouse he's getting valuable experience," Black said. "He's facing major league hitters when he pitches. He's feeling more comfortable each and every day that he's in the big leagues. He's seeing ballparks. He's facing hitters. He's having good results."

Luebke's career interests many folks beyond Padresland and little Maria Stein. The vast fan base known Buckeye Nation is grateful for the chance to cheer their fellow Buckeye, given the deluge of negative publicity surrounding Ohio State athletics of late. Ohio State and football are synonymous, and bad behavior off the field by the football Buckeyes, notably their former coach, has muddied Ohio State in the national headlines for several months now. With the school's president and athletic director also coming off poorly, West Coast Bias saw a lot of Gooberville in the Buckeyes' doings surrounding the resignation of football coach Jim Tressel. Luebke, a cousin of former Buckeyes quarterback Todd Boeckman, frowned at mention of the school's recent travails. For the record, he had no interest in trading Ohio State memorabilia for tattoos during his days in Columbus. (Not that it matters, but Luebke doesn't have any tattoos and has no plan to get one.) Further, he thinks enough of higher education to have returned to Ohio State two years ago to further his studies, and says he'll earn a degree in Logistics, which relates to the transportation of goods.

He described the football program's misdeeds as unfortunate. "It's kind of like a lot of things we've been seeing in the NCAA lately. It's usually a group of kids that makes some bad decisions, and it's a much larger group that has to pay the consequences," he says. "It's unfortunate because Ohio State football is a big thing there, and there are going to be a lot of people there that are going to be affected by things that come out of this."

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