Friday, April 29, 2011

Newsstand

 West Coast Bias juxtaposes the divorces of the McCourts and Moores, and what they showed us about how each owner operated his National League West ballclub. Joe Posnanski has another interesting story. This one is about the Royals and their payroll, which is the smallest in the majors.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Opinions...

Everyone has them. Here are several from me:

* There's seldom reason to look up Anthony Rizzo's stats or track his games, because the Rizzo-ites supply the updates so quickly. They keep us all up to speed. Warp speed. Between outs by Padres hitters, reports of "Rizzo hit another home run" or "another double for Rizzo" are easily heard in the pressbox. I get text and Tweet updates from Padres fans who would gladly drive Rizzo here from Tucson. By the time he gets to San Diego, Rizzo will be Savior Two. Chase Headley was Savior One.

Newsstand

Padres minor leaguer Cody (Don't Call Him Jaff) Decker and I recently blogged in the same cyber-neighborhood.  Here's Cody's column. Cody joins the family of blogging Padres farmhands started by Dirk Hayhurst. Dirk went on to write an acclaimed baseball book, The Bullpen Gospels. Meantime, West Coast Bias spells out what the Chargers should do at the top of their draft.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Less from Latos

Chipper Jones sees a Mat Latos who is less aggressive than the Mat Latos who pitched against the Braves twice in 2009 and once last year. The Braves cuffed Latos today, scoring six runs, five of which were unearned because of first baseman's Brad Hawpe's fielding error. Jones knew that Latos began the season on the disabled list. He also studied videotape of the right-hander's recent games. When I asked him about Latos' performance today, the likely Hall of Famer had a lot to say:

"It's tough, coming out of spring training hurt," Jones said. "You kind of get your legs back under you a little bit. Whether it's location or pitch selection, I don't know. I know this: The guy throws 94, 95, 96 miles per hour, and he's not throwing it. He's throwing a lot of breaking balls, a lot of changeups, a lot of sliders.

"What did make him so dominant in the past against us was the fact that he could go out there and dot  95 miles per hour on either side of the plate, and you had to respect it. And that made his offspeed stuff that much more effective. He's got plus offspeed stuff, but if you're going up there, seeing five or six pitches, and you know you're going to see three or four breaking balls, guys are going to start sitting on it."

Jones didn't see many fastballs from Latos today that reminded him of Latos in 2009-10.

"I've seen him on tape this year throwing 95, 96," he said. "The thing about it is, just like guys at the plate, pitchers get confidence problems too. They get 95, 96 wacked a couple of times, then they're going to shy away from going to it. Not saying that that's his mindset. I'm just telling you what I see from afar."

Latos is going through a stretch that would test the psyche of many pitchers. In his previous start, he allowed two home runs to the Phillies that went 400 feet at Petco Park. At that point, the 23-year-old had seen five home runs against him in only 14 innings this year, including two home runs off fastballs at Petco.

How did he respond against the Phillies? He walked five hitters in the next three-plus innings, which was a career-high total for him. Entering today, he was 0-8 with a 7.72 ERA in eight starts dating to September. His ERA went down today, but the nine-game losing streak ties Andy Benes and Dennis Rasmussen for the club record. Both of those pitchers had a lot of success in their careers. Latos should rally, provided his arm is healthy. He might be going through dead arm phase. But his slow start will increase speculation that he's paying a price for having thrown more innings last year than the Padres had planned for him. The team used the disabled list to rest him last summer. But after he returned, the Padres red-lined him as part of their attempt to win the National League West.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tim-BER

Goofiness restores sanity, perhaps. Or signals its return. That's my stab at explaining Ryan Ludwick's comical outbursts yesterday afternoon. Like a wannabe lumberjack, Ludwick repeatedly bellowed "Tim-BERRR." Five minutes would go by, and then he'd bellow again. "Tim-BERRR." The more he did it, the more he and his fellow Padres laughed. Ludwick commended me for braving the forest, as I had to interview Mike Adams nearby. Maybe someone should bring a chainsaw to the clubhouse today. The game arrived and Ludwick rammed two sliders for home runs last night, including the game-winner in the 13th inning. Even Brad Hawpe did something with the lumber. The double he hit off the left-field wall may have been his best swing of the year. It wasn't all about the wood, though. Cory Luebke and Chris Denorfia brought the leather, and the bullpen did its thing. Some overdue fun at the ballpark. There's your summary.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tune and broom

The best part of the Padres-Phillies series was the Steve Poltz national anthem Saturday. Up tempo yet unhurried, flavored yet true to the anthem. As good as I've heard in awhile. And I'm a bit of an anthem snob after hearing thousands of them, including one that Mrs.West Coast Bias nailed at The Murph many years ago. Poltz, as you likely know, is a Padres fan. Big time. Many years ago, we talked Padres between his Rugburns sets in Pacific Beach. Later when we crossed paths at the ballpark, he aways had a boyish excitement to him, like the Padres were as cool as dating Jewel. Well, maybe they weren't quite that interesting. The Padres are lucky to have Poltz as a fan is my point here. If the Strategic Thinkers want to flavor up the ballyard with a Padres vibe, they should have him do a pregame concert. Poltz and Beerfest, now that's a combination, although I'm not sure most people would get the Broderick Perkins references.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sound bites

Without being asked about Adrian Gonzalez, Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels mentioned him Friday night after the Padres were shut out for the sixth time in 20 games, the fourth time in nine games and second night in a row. "Thank God, Adrian left," Hamels told me, laughing. Hamels was talking about his latest cruise at Petco Park. Eight scoreless innings on Friday had dropped the lefty's Petco ERA to 1.23, which is a ballpark record (minimum five starts). Hamels moved past teammate Roy Oswalt, whose 1.69 mark after Thursday's scoreless outing had made him Petco's king for a day. How bad is it getting for the offense? Will Venable finally gets a hit, bunting for a single off Hamels, and he takes a verbal hit from Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen, who had this to say on the air: "Maybe Venable should bunt every time, because he can't hit."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Opinions...

Everyone has them. Here are several from me:

* The All-Star Game will be more fun to watch if Mike Adams is in it. I don't know what's more impressive: Matt Holliday's home run off the shin-high fastball that Adams threw in St. Louis, or Adams retiring the next 28 batters to tie the club record set by Bruce Hurst. If he makes it to Phoenix, Adams can double as a spokesman for microfracture surgery.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

First Ludwick, now Hawpe?

One of my favorite staples of the young baseball season is the proven big leaguer who redeems his manager's patience and emerges from the numbing, April slump that plagues so many players. When an otherwordly talent such as Albert Pujols must go through this trying episode of renewal, as he did the month, the sport is more compelling. As bad as Pujols looked to start the season, it was almost inevitable that he would take out his pain on several pitchers. Sure enough, the Dodgers bore the brunt of Pujols' market correction last week.

I think we watch sports partly because the pain is redemptive, for both the players and ourselves. If you want to see unreedemed pain, click on your nightly TV news. Someone has been shot or stabbed or wiped out by a tsunami. Apparently there is profit in trafficking in unredeemed pain, or else why we would see so much of it on TV and in the press? Early in my newspaper days, I worked the cop beat and covered breaking news. Sometimes I was assigned to stake out hospital wards. There, I was to interview the shocked loved ones of some victim of some awful mishap. It's part of why I went into sportswriting.

Tonight at Wrigley Field, the Padres and manager Bud Black enjoyed a redemptive breakout from Ryan Ludwick, who socked the Cubs in the doubleheader's second game. The barrage lifted Ludwick's batting average over .200. His career mark is .266, so there should be more helium in his climb. Next we'll see if the familiar pattern pulls Brad Hawpe out of his misery. His age (31) and lengthy track record as a decent or better hitter argue for a correction. Certainly if the breakout matches the pain, the boon will be bountiful. Hawpe is hitting .119 with 18 strikeouts in 46 at-bats. The slog worsened in the 2-1 loss this afternoon,  Hawpe going 0-for-5 and stranding so many runners that I lost count. It's not crazy to think the Padres would have two or three more victories if Hawpe, their No. 4 or 5 hitter, had been mediocre instead of inept.

"Could Hawpe have had a worse day?" Tweeted one of my Tweeps, dropthegloves2 today. "Shirley to God he has to get better than this!!!" It will get better for Hawpe, but it's worth remembering that the Rockies know him far better than any team, having employed him since 2000, and they released him last summer. Further, there's no worse place for a lefty slugger than Petco Park, and bad luck isn't gripping Hawpe like it did Ludwick. If Hawpe could run a little faster, he might be able to mix in a few infield hits, but the lefty clocked at a none-too-swift 4.4 seconds today on his killer doubleplay. This is shaking out as one of the early season's bearish tests.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wafer-thin margins

Surf over to another site, kind readers, if you're here to read about the skittish Padres offense.

I have a lifelong Get Out of Jail card where that subject is concerned. Over the years, I've written more words about boring Padres offenses than Hemingway wrote about bullfights. So even though the Padres have suffered three shutouts already, two by a 1-0 score, I don't have much to offer on that topic. I'm pulling out the card tonight. Here it is.

Besides, the wind and cold at Wrigley Field would've made for a daunting shift for anyone paid to hit. With Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano dealing like he usually does against them, even warm weather may not have helped the Padres.

I'll say a few words about the bullpen instead. It's still a good bullpen. A very good bullpen? Sure.

I do wonder whether Chad Qualls can get all of his mojo back from his peak years,  but as excellent Tweep Nathan Veale pointed out, Qualls hadn't allowed an earned run before giving up tonight's only run. And it wasn't his fault that the middle infielders failed to turn a doubleplay at a key point for the second time on this trip.

The challenge that this bullpen faces is, aside from not going bonkers while waiting for the offense to help out, can it be as absurdly good as last year's bullpen?

It's not fair to expect that. Last year's bullpen was a supernatural force. It felt bottomless to me for weeks on end. Watching Padres relievers smother offenses last year jogged me back to early 2005, when Bruce Bochy knew that as a close game stretched onward, he had the upper hand. I also thought back to 1996, when the bullpen constructed by Randy Smith led the National League in ERA.

Opponents likewise dreaded the later innings last year, not only because of Heath Bell, Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson, but because of Joe Thatcher, Ryan Webb (who didn't come up until May), Tim Stauffer and, yes, Edward Mujica. For all his donations to the outfield seats, Mujica didn't walk people. His fastball and splitter could be dominant.

Cory Luebke will be doing a lot if he can be nearly as good as Stauffer was last year in long relief. At this point in 2010, Stauffer already had thrown 10.1 scoreless innings of relief. In three of those games, he went at least two innings. Stauffer made the attrition duels a lot easier for Bud Black.

Bell and Adams actually are off to faster starts than a year ago, suggesting that I'm overstating the early might of last year's bullpen. By this point, Sean Gallagher had given up seven runs in seven games, worse than any Padres reliever now. Then again, the relievers a year ago had stranded 14 of 18 inherited runners, whereas this bullpen has allowed nine of 21 to score.

Bell does it again

Baseball looks so easy when you're watching on TV. Give the Astros and Padres credit Sunday for keeping it real for us. This baseball looked as easy as boxing blindfolded.

I don't blame President Bush for leaving before it was over.

Fortunately, Heath Bell was on the job. I don't know about you, but if there's another Padre who's more entertaining than Bell right now, I can't think of him.

This guy is some pitcher. The hot fastball and goofy comments bring him attention, but he knows what he's doing. Best of all, he never flinches.

With so many things going wrong, I guess that Bell's save streak, which dates to last May,  probably should've come to an end. A one-hopper went under his glove for a leadoff single. His fastball was riding high, putting another Astro on with a walk, and when Will Venable clanged a sun-ball for a one-out error, the bases were loaded and a two-run lead was looking small.

The fans were out of their stupor by now. The Astros looked peppier, too.

Bell never stopped pitching. That's the thing. Some guys just start throwing when things unravel.

Yeah, umpire Greg Gibson helped him, calling a 3-1 strike on a belt-high fastball that looked inside. (But TV also makes umpiring look a lot easier than it is.)

So what? The count was full, and Bell was losing speed on his fastball. The hitter, Matt Downs, had seen five consecutive fastballs, most of them up and in. At some point, a big league hitter is supposed to adjust, right?

Bell didn't back down. He threw a sixth consecutive fastball, again up and in. This one was 91 mph, slowish for Bell. But the pitch tied up Downs, who struck out on a foul tip to Nick Hundley. Downs was batting over .400 on the young season.

Still laboring, Bell had to get past Jason Bourgeois, who was 4-for-10. He fed him fastballs but couldn't put him away. So what does Bell throw with the count full and 28 pitches behind him? A curveball.

It was probably inside. But Bourgeois, appearing jumpy, tapped a groundball that Chase Headley turned into the final out and Bell's 38th consecutive save.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Latos OK, Padres lose

Mat  Latos looked a little sharper and stronger today than in his season debut. His pitch meter after six innings was at 78 -- 16 fewer than his six-inning performance here against the Reds. Four of his innings today went 1-2-3. So, Bud Black had a decent reason to send Latos out for the seventh with the score tied. (Then again, Latos, after his failed sacrifice try, had sprinted the basepaths in the top of the inning and the bullpen apparently was in OK shape.) Unfortunately for the Padres, Latos walked consecutive hitters with one out and the Astros broke through en route to their 5-3 victory. As mentioned here five days ago, Latos isn't in optimal game shape after opening the season on the disabled list, but that needle is moving in the right direction. I'm not reading much into the three home runs he's allowed, but hitters have punished a variety of mistakes -- a curveball and a two-seam fastball against the Reds, and today, a flat 1-2 slider that Chris Johnson hit 378 feet for a two-run, tying homer in the fourth. All three homers have come after the third.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Who is Will Venable?

Are the Padres losing confidence in Will Venable's long-term chances of becoming an everyday player? It's still too early to know from here, but Venable was back on the bench tonight for the fourth time in five games against a lefty starter. When I asked Bud Black about the platoon in right field recently, he said Venable will start against some lefties but was vague about when that will be. Venable's poor start may be part of it. But I inferred from Black that Chris Denorfia would've started against most lefties this month regardless of how Venable fared. Black wants his reserves involved, especially early in the season. With the glut of early open dates, that's harder to do, so all the more reason for Black to start key reserves such as Denorfia when the matchups are favorable.

Short term, it makes sense to go with Denorfia, who batted .295 with a .382 on-base percentage against lefties last year, compared with Venable's soul-sapping .224 career batting average and .280 slug rate against them. And it was Denorfia who led the Padres past the Astros tonight by hitting a home run and a double off Astros starter J.A. Happ.

Long term, the plot thickens. Venable is already behind the development curve because he played college basketball. He is 28. If he's to learn how to hit lefties, he needs to play against them. He doesn't have 1,000 career at-bats yet overall. Most of this comes down to the bottom-line evaluation. Can Venable become a solid or better everyday player, with his athleticism helping him to beat the odds? Or, in line with his minor league career, is he more likely to become a platoon player or extra outfielder?

Opinions...

Everyone has them. Here are several of mine.

* From the veterans in the lineup's middle, the Padres gladly would now take half of Adrian Gonzalez .407 batting average with men in scoring position of last year. So far, Ryan Ludwick is 0-for-14 and Brad Hawpe is 1-for-6.

* As mentioned here when the Padres signed Hawpe, he has a very involved swing, which means that when he's bad, he's really bad.

* It was painful to watch Hawpe search for his swing in recent batting practices. Looked like a slow-pitch softballer's hack.

* Ludwick has been a hair late on, oh, a hundred fastballs since the Padres got him last summer.

* Several Padres pitchers have gained life on their pitches in recent days, notably Clayton Richard and Ernesto Frieri. "That's not unusual once guys get settled in," said pitching coach Darren Balsley.

* The Rockies starting out 7-1 on the road is the National League West's most significant early trend. Typically the Rockies go about 31-50 on the road. They've finished with a winning road mark only once, going 41-40 two years ago.

* It's gotta be tough for Padres TV broadcasters to keep their employers happy when talking about the team's offense. After the 1-0 loss on Thursday, we heard praise for Eric Patterson reaching base on catcher's interference.

* Will Venable's slow start is the most disappointing of them all. When I saw him in early March, Venable was comfortable at the plate. He's still tinkering with his form, perhaps too much. "Every time I see him, he has a new batting stance," a scout told me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Zero for Moseley

The Padres have scored as many runs for Dustin Moseley in his three starts as they've scored for you or me. After his previous game, Saturday against the Dodgers, I asked Moseley about not getting any runs yet this season and here's what he said:  "I got outpitched, so, hang with 'em. You keep going out there, and the boys will start coming through. We've got a good group here, and some good hitters. It'll work itself out." Not much else for him to say, is there? The starting pitchers opposite Moseley were, in order, Jaime Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda and, tonight, Bud Norris. They all pitched well, especially Garcia. Tonight, the Padres never really adjusted to the tight slider that Norris kept throwing. All things considered, the performance was the offense's worst of the young season.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Black blows steam

Bud Black insisted to me that his ejection today had nothing to do with wanting to ignite the lads, or preferring to be somewhere else when the Padres came to bat again.

"I didn't want to get tossed," he said after the Padres rallied to beat the Reds 3-2, averting a sweep.

I neither believe nor blame Pepe Negro on that score, as these are strange times.

Gene Mauch's ghost has inhabited Black this young season, the Padres bunting in three consecutive games with a man on second base and none out, twice with their No. 3 hitter. They failed each time, but as you'll read below if you make it that far, Black isn't backing down on Bunt Ball.

I can only assume it's his way of telling the Doogster that he didn't give him enough hitters to offset Adrian Gonzalez's absence, so let's have our best hitter bunt, bunt, bunt away.

Screamers Lou Piniella and Earl Weaver aren't in our skipper's repertoire, but for a guy whose Royals teammates used to call him Mister Freeze, Black gave plate umpire Angel Hernandez an earful from the dugout in the fourth inning as Tim Stauffer pitched.

Black had yelled at Hernandez after Stauffer took a called third strike the previous inning, and now, when Hernandez deemed Stauffer's curveball to Reds pitcher Travis Wood was wide, Black screamed a few more  words.

This blog is G-rated, so I won't print the naughtiest word that Black hollered.

Just know that I've never heard him use that word or many of its cousins, and I've been around him through a lot of thick and thin since he took over in 2007.

Apparently he then yelled something sarcastic after Hernandez called strike three on the next pitch, whereupon the ump gave the National League's reigning Manager of the Year the heave-ho, as baseball commentators like to say.

Black then ran onto the field and gestured angrily before taking his leave. The crowd cheered. Catharsis, it's called. Until then, and for a few innings more, a maddening homestand had become even more maddening.

The Padres were still down a run in the eighth when Orlando Hudson, the No. 3 hitter, batted with Jason Bartlett on second base and none out against a wobbly Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman's pitch speed was way down on Tuesday, and the lefty reputedly doesn't rebound spryly from outings, and now he was looking sluggish. He had walked Bartlett, then advanced him to second with an errant pickoff throw.

I dislike throwing a lifeline to a struggling pitcher. Which is what the Padres did. Through his replacement, Rick Renteria, Black gave the bunt sign to Hudson. Mind you, Hudson has been raking of late. Along with Nick Hundley he's been the team's best hitter this month.

Hudson bunted the ball too hard. Chapman made a good play to get Bartlett at third. Even if it had worked, I'd rather see my hot No. 3 hitter swing the bat against a struggling pitcher.

"My manager asked me to bunt and I didn't get the job done," Hudson told me. "Even if he didn't ask me to bunt, I'm not a 100-RBI guy, so in my mind I've got to get this guy over there."

The Padres still tied the game that inning, with help from a Reds throwing error.

How did they win the game? Lining the first pitch, Hudson singled in the ninth with the bases loaded and two outs.

Let's be clear: I'm not anti-bunt. And, having covered a lot of baseball, I know there are many ingredients behind the scenes that clubs cannot divulge when explaining tactical moves. For example, some hitters just aren't comfortable hitting against certain types of pitchers. When Hudson bunted in the season's second game as the No. 3 hitter in a similar spot, it made more sense, as he and the Padres were just getting their sea legs.The next day when he tried two bunts in a key spot, I wasn't wild about it. And now, when a No. 3 hitter bunts with the bases empty and none out in consecutive games,  it seems overly cautious.

"Orlando is a good hitter," Black said, when I told him I'd rather he was swinging than bunting today. "But I still think his game -- Orlando Hudson's -- I think the bunt is part of his game. To advance the runner. To get the guy to third base with less than two outs -- that increases our chances percentage-wise to get that run in.

"I still say, in that situation, it forces the infielders to come in, and it increases your chances to score that run from third."

QUICK HITS

* Hudson called it more than just a nice victory. "It was a great win for us, not pretty good. It was a great win for us. We lost two tough games to the Reds, and to come out and win a one-run ballgame, hopefully the momentum will shift a little bit."

* Joey Votto's beautiful swing was evident today, yielding a double and two singles, but Votto, who got my MVP vote last year, did some strange things in this series. He runs well and should've scored from first base on Tuesday when a two-out double went into the right-field corner. Heck, right fielder Will Venable assumed he had no shot at Votto and threw to second base, but Votto stopped at third. Today, Votto assumed he'd hit a home run off Stauffer, so he Cadillacked it out of the box. Welcome to Petco Park, Joey. The ball hit off the left-center field wall and because Votto hadn't been running, he ended up with a double instead of a triple (center fielder Cameron Maybin didn't track the ball well). Later, playing first base, Votto may have cost his team a key out because he wasn't on the bag when fielding a throw.

* I'll say it again: I've never seen Hundley look so comfortable at the plate. His hit-and-run single that led to Hudson's winning hit was another beauty.

* Yo, Adrian: Padres first basemen entered today with the lowest OPS (.342) in the NL with a .128 batting average and .163 OBP.

Headfirst pain

Josh Hamilton's injury on a headfirst slide into home plate prompted funny musings today from Dusty Baker, the Reds manager and a former player. As a rookie for the Braves in 1970, Baker went headfirst into home plate, then heard about it the next day from Donn Clendendon of the Mets. "Donn said, 'Hey kid, don't ever slide headfirst into home plate,' " Baker remembered, appreciating that Clendendon was looking out for him. "Catchers like Jerry Grote, Randy Hundley and Johnny Bench will break your neck."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tonight's wacko game

I'm going to close my eyes the next time Clayton Richard makes a spur-of-the-moment throw toward a base, or attempts an intentional walk.

It's like watching footage of the Denkinger call, or hearing a good singer forget the lyrics.

When Richard aims fastballs and sliders at the catcher's mitt, the ball goes where he intends, or close to his target. The tough stuff, he does well.

So what happens when our hero merely has to lob the ball or throw it quickly to an infielder? The ball sails to the backstop, or swerves by an imperiled teammate like an overthrown Whiffle Ball. Sometimes, like he's channeling his quarterback days in the two-minute offense, Richard spikes the ball.

Richard pitched well tonight, allowing the Reds one earned run in 7.2 innings. He'll make millions of dollars if he keeps bringing that fastball and cut fastball -- both the life and accuracy -- to his outings. Unfortunately, he also suffered an unearned run caused by his throwing gremlin, which struck when the lefty attempted to throw to second base. Perhaps there was confusion about who was supposed to cover the bag. Regardless, a pitcher is trained to throw to the base.

The ball went five feet wide and into the outfield. Tasked with a similar throw later, Richard bounced it wide. (Update: Richard said "he just rushed" the throw that led to the fifth-inning run that broke a 1-1 tie. "I have to take an extra step," he said.)

I'm hoping this passes--soon. Richard is too promising, too athletic to allow this to continue, right?

That said, some of these Padres hitters are also a needle to the eyeballs at this early stage.

Reds infielders, meanwhile, made stupendously good throws spur of the moment. If you didn't see third baseman's Scott Rolen off-balance laser that nabbed Alberto Gonzalez at home plate, find the video. Even better was the barehanded pluck and throw by second baseman Brandon Phillips to retire Will Venable at first and deny the Padres a winning run in the ninth inning.

Several Tweeps are growing restless with Brad Hawpe, who took extra batting practice today but again looked uncertain during the game. Tax Day isn't here yet and the calls for Anthony Rizzo already are growing. I can't recall a player in San Diego getting booed this early in the season like Hawpe did tonight.

Nick Hundley, conversely, looks more comfortable with the bat than I've ever seen him.

Unless I'm on medication, I don't like seeing a No. 3 hitter trying to bunt with none out and a man on second base, though Chase Headley looked just as lost when swinging the bat as when bunting. (Update: Headley told me that he was under orders to bunt if Orlando Hudson reached second base in the ninth. After Hudson led off the ninth with an ICBM of a double off the right-center fence, Headley again checked for the sign. The bunt was still on. Headley popped his bunt to catcher Ryan Hanigan. He also struck out three times. "This one," Headley said of the defeat, "I take on myself.")

Sure, Ryan Ludwick is hitting into a lot of bad luck. At some point, though, the Padres have to get more value from a hitter who's consuming 15 percent of their payroll. Said this in the spring training wrapup here: Other clubs were surprised that the Padres didn't non-tender him last winter.

Loudest hit of the night belonged to Reds leadoff man Drew Stubbs, who took Cory Luebke out to dead center in the 11th inning to salt away Cincinnati's 8-2 victory. Most nights, Petco plays as big as Nebraska early, like Alaska late.

(Updated material) Richard said the defeat stung a little extra because the Padres "were so close to winning so many times." Venable agreed, saying "if you think too much about it, you're not going to do yourself any favors." Said Headley: "We're 10 games into the season so everything is kind of magnified."

Another look

Umpire Paul Schrieber's call at third base that went against the Padres on Monday drew swift, unusually harsh criticism from Padres TV broadcasters. Me? I thought it was a very difficult call, as a friend of mine's blown-up photograph shows (above). The call likely was wrong, but I think Chris Denorfia's weak bunt was more objectionable than the call.

Strong safety

Chase Headley says he'll "know better next time" how to avoid interference calls such as the one Saturday that snuffed a late rally against the Dodgers. Then again, third baseman Casey Blake may think twice about getting in Headley's way. Tonight, Blake was out of the lineup for the third game in a row since Headley ran him over at Petco Park. "I know he was hurting, that's why I asked him right away: 'Are you all right?' " said Headley, who kneed Blake in the thigh when he slammed into him. Headley, who played strong safety in high school, said he didn't see Blake until it was too late. "I'll know better next time," he said. "Keep your head on a swivel."

Baseball data mining

Always a rewarding read, Sports Illustrated's  Tom Verducci tells us  how a Danish tech company is revolutionizing pitching data. He lists which American League pitchers release the ball farthest from the rubber and why this could be an advantage. Also cool is Verducci's reportage on slider and curveball spin rates. I know something about this stuff, so here's my spin from  the West Coast.

* The Padres were the first major league club to use data from the Danish company, Trackman. The data has improved quite a bit since the Padres got the jump on everyone.

* Data on the ball's exit speed and spin rate off the bat is used to analyze hitters. For example, Adrian Gonzalez doesn't hit balls the hardest, but he gets tremendous backspin on the ball and therefore has great carry, confirming what field personnel and scouts said for years. My guess is that Buster Posey benefits likewise. (What a hoot it would be to see the exit speeds of balls hit by Red Sox opponents in this young season. Safe to assume The Matrix has all of those numbers, so I'm hoping that Bill James will post them on his Web site. NASA will be interested.)

* Roy Oswalt, a long-strider who has one of the most extended release points in the majors, told me last year that it was kind of funny to pitch in the same game as Mat Latos because their strides lengths are so different. Latos is nearly six inches taller but Oswalt's stride foot lands in front of the Tattooed One's. Oswalt's 93-mph fastball gets to home plate "faster" than the Latos 93-mph fastball. But, that doesn't necessarily mean the hitter's reaction time is shorter, because that also depends on how well the hitter sees the ball. In his first full season, Latos created unusual "downhill" plane on his pitches, which likely made it harder for hitters to read the ball.

Generally speaking, though, the pitchers who have more deception have release points closer to home plate.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Latos' first start

Foremost, Mat Latos looks healthy. In a season debut delayed by a combination of shoulder bursitis and poor form, Latos had enough fastball to strike out Reds stars such as Joey Votto and Jay Bruce tonight. He broke off a few sharp curveballs and sliders, too, as part of an early strikeout flurry. As should be expected, Latos is not in optimal game shape after throwing only 10 Cactus League innings and about 10 more against minor leaguers. The Reds took advantage in the middle innings, scoring all three of the runs against him in the six innings. Latos threw 94 pitches and struck out seven. As his stamina improves, his stuff should hold longer.

The shoulder pain Latos reported late in spring camp apparently was fleeting.  Jed Hoyer told me that Latos didn't have an MRI on his shoulder. For what it's worth, some pitching coaches say Latos' short-stride delivery places extra strain on his shoulder. The Padres lengthened his stride by a few inches last year but to tinker further might reduce the 6-foot-6 right-hander's downward angle, which is a big part of his game.

After his outing tonight, Latos said his arm feels 100 percent. He praised Jonny Gomes, Cincinnati's No. 5 hitter, for hitting a rolling curveball for a home run in the fourth inning. The two-run home run that leadoff man Chris Heisey hit in the fifth was off a two-seam fastball that "got away from me," Latos said. "It was supposed to be down and away."

Slow go with Blanks

The Padres were of some mind that Kyle Blanks, who had Tommy John surgery last July, would be playing by now, likely as a designated hitter with Double-A San Antonio. Instead, they hit the pause button to allow Blanks to build more elbow strength. Blanks "should be able to play some first base" when he returns, perhaps this weekend, said farm director Randy Smith. The Padres' first baseman of the future appears to be Anthony Rizzo, who's in in Triple-A, but I agree with putting Blanks, 24, at first when he's not in the DH role. It's his best position. Get him comfortable, then see how his bat plays.

Here's Latos

The pitching shoulder needed refreshing. So, too, perhaps, the psyche of Mat Latos, who leaves the disabled list tonight for his season debut against the Reds. Scouts who saw Latos sputter in March suggest he went to the disabled list as much for his outlook as a sore shoulder. Whatever the ingredients inside the move, the Padres say they're pleased with how it turned out. "I think a little rest after a rough spring training has cleared Mat's mind a little bit and got him back to normal," pitching coach Darren Balsley told me Sunday. Down time also allowed Balsley and Latos to synch up the 6-foot-6 right-hander's delivery. Whereas Latos was scattershot during a Cactus League in which he had nine walks, four strikeouts and a 9.00 ERA in 10 innings, he hit the mitt in recent bullpen sessions and a simulated game. It only helped Latos that Balsley's latest tutorials came at sea level, where a pitcher's grip and curveball are better than in arid Arizona. "The ball's coming out of his hand good and his command is back," Balsley said. "Other than his health right now, the thing that I'm most pleased with is, his offspeed stuff is sharp again. It might just be a matter of him getting out of the thin air in Arizona, or the bullpen repetition." For what it's worth, Latos had a ninja-sharp spring training in 2010 (1.59 ERA, 14 strikeouts/five walks) before he went 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA as a major league sophomore. He faded late in the year when the Padres were red-lining him to try to win the West, but not before he joined the Cy Young conversation. The Tattoed One has 90-100 pitches in him tonight, Balsley guessed, noting the 72-pitch simulated game last Sunday in Arizona. "I expect to see from Mat what we saw from him last year the majority of the time," he said.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

LeBlanc up, then down

The Padres are returning Wade LeBlanc to Triple-A Tucson tomorrow (Monday) to open a roster spot for Mat Latos when he comes off the disabled list. The strange part is that LeBlanc was promoted from Triple-A just this morning. Why not just hold onto reliever Samuel Deduno for another day and send him out? It was Deduno who was optioned to Triple-A for LeBlanc.

Here's why: The Padres wanted a fresh reliever for today's game. Deduno had thrown 42 pitches Saturday night (updated stat). Used to starting, LeBlanc could've pitched for several innings if needed. Long reliever Cory Luebke, a second-year big leaguer, threw 65 pitches Friday and had today off.

Harang's comeback

San Diego son Aaron Harang is 2-0 to start his Padres career, both wins coming at Petco Park.

See, life does have a sense of fair play.

Petco Park, where Harang's pitching and three Padres home runs denied the Dodgers a sweep today, owed Harang a favor, inasmuch as he overtaxed his arm in one of those endless Petco games three years ago.

"I kept telling my teammates, just get me one run, and I'll make it stand up," Harang told me last month, recalling the horrors of May 25, 2008.

Shut out for six innings by Padres long reliever Josh Banks, the Reds never gave Harang that run, so he kept pitching, and pitching, and pitching as an emergency reliever. In all, he fired 63 pitches over four innings, only three days after he'd thrown 103 pitches as a starter.*

*Here's where the old farts say something like, "So what? These pitchers today are babies. I  remember when Bob Gibson (or Dizzy Dean or Mordecai Three Fingers Brown) threw three shutouts in a week, and one of those games was in a blizzard." Codgers: Today's pitchers aren't trained to shoulder heavy loads on short rest.

Harang told MLB.com's Corey Brock that counting the warmup pitches he threw in Petco over the three days here in May 2008, his total tally was some 400 pitches.

So which Reds pitcher started four days later? Harang. And the Pirates waxed him.

Next came a 1-2 punch -- shoulder weakness that didn't put Harang on the disabled list but led to overcompensations, from which he recovered not in 2008 or 2009 or 2010 with the Reds, but in spring training with the Padres, who had signed him for $4 million last December. There were other complications, include an appendectomy in 2009 and back spasms that twice put him on the DL in 2010.

Harang isn't blaming Reds manager Dusty Baker, who'll be in Petco tomorrow, but he said the unusual stress of May 2008 "took a toll" that rippled.

"I got in some bad habits because my shoulder was weak and I was never able to figure it out and get it back in line," he said.

"It was one of those things where I'm just a gamer, I'm going to take the ball whenever I can get it. It was one of those situations where we didn't have any relievers left. I volunteered, as did (Reds starter Edinson) Volquez."

Thank goodness for Volquez, or the Reds and Padres might still be playing that game at Petco. A budding ace, Volquez entered in relief and gave up a game-winning home run to Adrian Gonzalez in the 18th inning, nearly six hours after the day's first pitch. Volquez, who had started against the Padres two days earlier, would have reconstructive elbow surgery in 2009. Tomorrow, he'll bring a 7.36 ERA into his start against the Padres.

Should the Padres go deep into extra innings this year, you may see someone like catcher Nick Hundley pitch in relief before you see Harang, who still remembers details from Cincinnati's late-inning futility against the invincible Mr. Banks.

"That game wore me out and I don't think I ever recovered from it with my mechanics and arm slot," he said. "After that, I could never find that groove from where I was before. The last couple of years had almost been where I was trying to figure out where I was before."

The Padres have treated him like royalty, lining him up fourth to start the home opener in late afternoon shadows that made it more difficult for hitters to see. He responded with six innings, allowing one run in the 3-1 victory over the World Series champion Giants.

Today, the right-hander drew a patchy Dodgers lineup that no one would confuse with the Yankees and exploited it to the tune of six-plus inning with three hits and two runs (one earned) allowed.

Tougher tests await the San Diego State alum. Yet, to think, I told Harang in March that I wondered when the Padres signed him if his fastball could still break a plane of glass, given his heavy workloads before the problems of May 2008 and his 5.32 ERA and career-low strikeout rate last year.

"I still have my arm, my velocity hasn't dropped off," he replied. "I did work a lot of innings, but I was pretty efficient with my pitch counts."

Over his final three years with Cincinnati, he was 18-38, not what the Reds had in mind when they issued Harang a four-year contract for $36.5 million in early 2007.

And Harang admitted that he tried to live up to every penny the Reds guaranteed him.

"I felt like I was putting a lot of pressure on myself the last couple of years in Cincinnati, trying to hold up my end of the contract and being a top guy there for awhile," he said. "I put too much pressure on myself.

"It's weird," he added. "I guess I look at this past offseason as, it was my time to leave Cincinnati. I really enjoyed my time in Cincinnati. It was great for me and my family. The fans were good, the city was good to us, so it definitely has a spot in our heart for us. But this was a good change of scenery."

In early March, Harang said that he and Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley made tiny adjustments that restored him to nearly optimal form.

"I feel good," he said after today's victory. "Now I've just go to keep it there for the rest of the year."

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Strange ending

What a weird way for a ballgame to end. A baserunner who's a third baseman runs over the other team's third baseman and is called out for interference. Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake had little or no chance to throw out Cameron Maybin as he pursued the speedster's dribbler between shortstop and third. When the Padres' Chase Headley then ran over Blake, the Dodgers had a third out and the 4-0 victory. Padres manager Bud Black, who didn't have a good angle to see the play, said the umpires were unaminous that it was the right call.

The way Headley described it, the veteran Blake improvised shrewdly. "That was just a smart play by him," Headley said. "If you watch, you can see that I slowed down and gave him a path to go by, and he knew he wasn't going to make the play, so he took a sidestep and came right into me. I definitely was not thinking about hitting him. But he got in the way in a way that it didn't look like he was trying to, and he got the call."

Loss irks Hundley

Catcher Nick Hundley blamed himself for the 4-2 loss to the Dodgers in the series opener, noting that his passed ball and throwing error helped Los Angeles to two runs Friday night in the suspended game that ended tonight. "If I do a better job behind the plate, I don't think it goes that long," said Hundley, who is batting .435 after six games. Tony Gwynn Jr., facing the Padres for the first time in a Dodgers uniform, twice singled off a 1-2 pitch in the second portion of the suspended game, including a go-ahead single off Pat Neshek's changeup with two out in the 11th inning. The friendship between Gwynn and several Padres players didn't soften the sting. "I hope he goes 4-for-4 on Monday (against the Giants)," Hundley said. "At no point are you happy (for him). Obviously he's a great guy. We loved playing with him. We'll be friends again on Monday. But for now, we're competing." Gwynn hit .204 for the Padres last year and explained here why he expects to hit better this year. Gwynn led off the second game tonight with a double off Dustin Moseley and scored for a 1-0 lead.

Friday, April 8, 2011

L.A. and Gwynn

Tony Gwynn Jr. will be in San Diego's ballpark wearing a Dodgers uniform tonight, and if that seems strange, consider how Trevor Hoffman reacted when the son of Mr. Padre wore a generic Los Angeles cap into the Padres' clubhouse a few years ago.

"Hoffy snatched it off my head," Gwynn Jr. told me, laughing that infectious Gwynn laugh. "He said, 'Hey, don't wear an L.A. hat in here.' I still remember Hoffy just chewing me out that day for wearing an L.A. hat. He was joking, but he was serious at the same time."

Little T, as Gwynn is known among Gwynns, laughed at the memory a second time, like he still couldn't believe Hoffman fussed over a cap.

"It wasn't even a blue L.A. hat," he said. "It may have been a Laker-colored hat--purple."

Neither Hoffman nor anyone else in San Diego has reason to snatch the L.A. cap off Gwynn's head this weekend, Gwynn wearing Dodgers Blue largely because he batted .204 last year with the Padres. He knew he was a goner in November when the Doogster brought in the faster, younger and more powerful Cameron Maybin for center field.

Oh, Padres fans buzzed more than usual over a minor transaction when Gwynn joined the Dodgers in December, but that was mostly because he's the son of Mr. Padre and the Dodgers, just by being the Dodgers, agitate Padres fans.

"I get the feeling that there was more disappointment than there was anger at me in a Dodgers uniform," said Gwynn, 28. "I think to this day, Padres fans know that if I had my choice, I would have loved to stay home. But I didn't have a choice. The Padres showed me the door. When you get non-tendered, that's pretty much what's happening. They're showing you the door."

Truth be told, Little T grew up liking both the Padres and Dodgers, the Padres far more so because dad spent his entire career with the club. The Dodgers had his uncle Chris, the younger brother of Big T, in their outfield for a few years. Of course, Chris also dealt the Dodgers a blow on behalf of the Padres, driving in the winning run at Chavez Ravine that gave San Diego the National League West title in 1996.

Back in San Diego last winter shortly after the Dodgers signed him, and mulling what jersey number to wear, Little T noticed a photo of Chris wearing No. 10 for the Dodgers. The photo adorns the baseball lounge at San Diego State, where all three of the major league Gwynns played.

"I figured it'd be fitting to wear my uncle's number," he said.

Anthony Keith Gwynn Jr. likes having Los Angeles across the front of his jersey, and that's also a family thing.

"Since I knew what  Laker was, I was a Laker fan," he said. "The first memory I have of sports is my Dad and my mom's brothers yelling at a Laker-Boston game. So, from that point on, I knew I wanted to be a Laker fan. I was a big Magic Johnson fan."

Proximity to San Diego also weighed into Gwynn's decision to choose the Dodgers over another club or two.  "L.A. was the closest to home, which was really important, being that I have three children, a dad that was sick (Big T, diagnosed with mouth cancer last August, underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments in the offseason) and a wife," he said.

Along with the substance of his new gig, the style fits Little T to a T.

"I've always been infatuated with the logo, the L.A. hat," he said, and somewhere Mr. Hells Bells is scowling.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Prospect rankings

Baseball America's positional rankings are out, and the Padres fared about like I would've expected, showing pretty good depth and so-so star potential. Top ranking went to Anthony Rizzo, listed as the No. 6 first base prospect overall. Also cracking the rankings were Casey Kelly (ninth among right-handed starting pitchers), Jaff Decker (10th, corner outfielders), Reymond Fuentes (11th, center fielders), Drew Cumberland (13th, second basemen), Jason Hagerty (18th, catchers), Jedd Gyorko (19th, third basemen) and Cory Luebke (19th, left-handed starting pitchers). No Padres farmhand was among the 15 shortstop prospects or the 15 reliever prospects.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Will the fans show up?

The day after the Padres' home opener typically was Tony Gwynn's favorite day of the baseball year, so it was only appropriate that Mr. Padre walked into Petco Park on Wednesday afternoon, smile on face one day after San Diego sold out and won its home opener.

"This is my day, yeah, ha, ha, ha," Gwynn said. "You find out who's who. Sellout crowd yesterday, so we'll find out today who the real fans are."

Any sellout in these fragile economic times should prompt smiles from a baseball club, but with 81 home dates, a major league team leans heavily on the dedicated fans who go to games after the pageantry of Opening Day has come and gone.

The Padres, who announced a paid attendance of 24,368 for Wednesday's game, are trying to rebuild a season ticket base that lost customers in droves not long after the team moved into its downtown ballpark, and even after the National League West-winning years in 2005 and 2006.

As I wrote then about the empty seats, the Padres heard a giant sucking sound while tabulating ticket revenues. The drop in total ticket sales revenue between 2007 and 2009, hastened by on-field dips and the Great Recession's arrival, was more than $30 million.

Whoosh.

Only two Aprils ago, days after Jeff Moorad agreed to buy the Padres from John Moores through a multi-year payment plan, the club's number of "full season equivalents" was down to 8,500, a Petco Park low that represented a stunning 65 percent drop from the 20,000-plus season tickets when the park opened in 2004. The winter of 2008-09 left the Padres with frostbite, numbed by a staggering tide of failed renewals that wiped  6,500 season tickets off the books in four months.

The number has since climbed to nearly 10,700, firmed in part by a 91 percent renewal rate dating to late last summer that was the club's best since the move downtown. And as a percentage of revenue, the season tickets sales are actually a little higher this year because the Padres raised prices on their most expensive seats, offsetting a price cut on cheaper seats.

Some other time, I'll write about Padres president Tom Garfinkel's creative efforts to get more people into seats.

As for fan flavor at Padres games, it felt neutral many times last year even as the team spent 148 days in first place because patrons of teams such as the Cardinals, Dodgers and Phillies cheered so loudly.

For now, the Padres remain indebted to hundreds, sometimes thousands of these fans of other clubs who pay for choice seats in San Diego.

Giants fans took over Petco on Wednesday before the first inning was done, their chants of  Let's Go Giants echoing last September's series here.

Then again, now that San Francisco has a World Series trophy to go with its spectacular ballpark, the Giants have become one of the West's marquee sports franchises, perhaps second to only the Lakers. Heated fan support is raising the black-and-orange balloon higher this year. Abetted by Fortune 500 companies far more numerous than in San Diego, the Giants have sold all of their allotted season tickets -- 27,700 -- and, for the first time since they moved to San Francisco, have a waiting list for season tickets, said club spokesman Jim Moorhead.

An average Giants ticket costs $10 more than an average Padres ticket, says Team Marketing Report, and the average premium ticket in San Francisco, at $78.73, is more than double the $36.01 in San Diego. Yet the Giants will sell some 3.3 million tickets this year. If the Padres can keep life interesting on the field, they might see a rise in attendance of 300,000 or more from last year's 2.1 million.

Play no violins for the Padres. In an industry that generates $9 billion in yearly revenues, the flow of money from major league baseball's bigger revenue pots to 19 Tony Gwynn Drive far exceeds that to the high-revenue clubs.

That's a topic for another day here.

The Padres' challenge of rebuilding their season ticket base to its early Petco levels nonethless appears no less daunting than the fastballs and changeups thrown by Giants ace Tim Lincecum here Wednesday in San Francisco's 8-4 victory. UDPATE: Lincecum struck out 13 against no walks in his seven innings, earning him cheers as loud as any received by a Padre.

Gwynn's good news

The best sound yet of the infant baseball season: Tony Gwynn's laughter, which crackled at Petco Park this afternoon during batting practice. Gwynn is at a Padres workout for the first time since undergoing a battery of radiation and chemotherapy treaments for the mouth cancer diagnosed last August. He said it's too soon to know if he's cancer-free, but he's encouraged by the results. "I've still got a couple more CT Scans and MRIs to go through, but, so far, so good," he said. Gwynn, who turns 51 next month, said he came to the ballpark specifically to thank Padres first-base coach Dave Roberts and part-time coach Mark Merila for their words of advice and support. Roberts has recovered from Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosed about 13 months ago. Merila was treated for a brain tumor in the late 1990s and again starting in 2005.

"Both of those guys helped me a lot," Gwynn said.

First on his thank-you list, though, is his wife Alicia, whom he's known since childhood in Long Beach. "Look at the sweater vest my wife put me in," he said, laughing. "She's my hero, so I've got to do what she tells me."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nice start

From Hells Bells to Heath Bell, the Padres couldn't have asked for more from their home opener.

Trevor Hoffman, the retired save king, trotted to the mound for a ceremonial pitch to ring in San Diego's 43rd opener, Hells Bells sounding once Hoffman left the bullpen at Petco Park.

Heath Bell, who succeeded Hoffman in 2008, reveled in "the coolest sound in San Diego," and four hours later secured a 3-1 victory over the World Series champion Giants.

Between the Bells and Bell, Giants manager Bruce Bochy watched the same frustrating movie for the umpteenth time, even if some of the actors were new.

"Groundhog Day," Bochy said, referring to the Padres' 12-6 record against the Giants in 2010. "It's very similar to what they did last year."

Several of the Padres performers joined the team last offseason, notably pitcher Aaron Harang, whose third-inning escape from having runners on the corners with none out was, in Bochy's words, "the turning point of the game." Harang said fastball accuracy greased the escape, which came against the lineup's Nos. 1-3 hitters. Giants partisans griped that the plate umpire was generous to Harang, but Bochy didn't grouse to reporters afterward.

"You have to give (Harang) credit," he said.

Bochy praised the Padres, seconding Hoffman's comment that Bud Black's team is "being underestimated again" by people outside the club.

"It always comes down to how you throw the ball and they have a good staff," said Bochy, a pitching-first manager since his rookie year with the Padres in 1995.

Beyond the pitching, if there's one reason why the Padres are 3-1 and the Giants are 1-4, it's defense. The Padres were far handier with the  leather than the Cardinals in the opening series at St. Louis, and Tuesday they again received slick work from the newcomers at shortstop and in center field, Jason Bartlett and Cameron Maybin. Coming off a poor defensive series at Dodger Stadium, the Giants gave the Padres their third run in the third when pitcher Madison Bumgarner fumbled a two-out nubber off the bat of speedy Chris Denorfia.

The Giants, despite a stellar spring training, are smelling like stale champagne six days into the first World Series defense in their San Francisco history.

"We're disappointed in our start," Bochy said, "but, bottom line, this is a good club."

Bochy said opening the season on the road with a wide array of starting times added to the test. "We'll get in a rhythm here," he said.

Bell singled out the defense of Maybin, saying opponents' drives that appeared to be doubles from the bullpen are ending up in his glove. He called Bartlett the majors' most under-rated shortstop, defensively. The two are part of a retooled lineup whose sum, Bell said, may be greater than last year's attack that had Adrian Gonzalez.

"I think we have a little better hitting all around and a little better D," he said.

Underestimated?

Watching the Padres, Trevor Hoffman is already feeling deja vu. "I think they're being underestimated again," he said. Explaining his confidence, he cited the "due diligence" of Bud Black and Padres coaches.

Hoffman livened up today's pregame festivities to the home opener by trotting in from the bullpen to Hells Bells. He then threw a ceremonial pitch to his brother Glenn, the team's third-base coach, with former Padres bullpen catcher Mark Merila calling it strike one.

Wearing a suit and tie, the save king isn't nostalgic for pitching. "Very comfortable, happy, no regrets," he said.

He described his role with the Padres as an "observer" who "floats" to various parts of the organization. He said he's enjoyed advising several minor leaguers. During spring training, he invited Brad Brach, the organization's Pitcher of the Year in 2010, to play golf with him. "He's done a lot of things like that," said Padres president Tom Garfinkel, to whom Hoffman reports.

Bell gags self

Heath Bell says he won't be talking to the press about any ongoing or upcoming contractual talks between him and the Padres. I'm skeptical that the Loveable Kook can stay quiet on any subject for that long, but he doesn't want to detract from what the team is trying to accomplish. "I'm going to use a little of Albert Pujols and say, 'Talk to my agent and Jed Hoyer about it, because I'm not going to talk about it,' " he said. Bell is in his walk year and might be traded this summer if the Padres are out of playoff contention. He confirmed that he's still holding out hope that the Padres will sign him to an extension. "I'm not going to beat that into the ground," he said, scoring points with the Strategic Planners.

The team's closer since 2008, Bell may be the most recognizable Padre on a retooled roster loaded with newcomers. "Am I the face of the franchise?" he said before the home opener today. "I do have a fat face, but Bud Black and the coaches are the face of the franchise."

Home opener

Fast approaching middle age if they aren't there already, the Padres will play their 43rd home opener in the major leagues this afternoon. On the same day that future Padres pitcher Pete Walker was born -- April 8, 1969 -- San Diego debuted in the big leagues with a 2-1 victory over the Astros in front of 23,370 at Jack Murphy Stadium. True to those less specialized times, relief pitchers weren't needed. Padres starter Dick Selma finished off both the Astros and his shift in two hours and 13 minutes.

The Padres had joined a rough neighborhood. The National League West was home to a budding dynasty in the Reds and a near dynasty in the Dodgers. The Giants, who'll be in downtown San Diego today, would lead the league in scoring in 1970 after compiling the NL's highest victory total for the 1960s. Bullied by everybody, the Padres didn't finish out of last place until 1975. Their first winning season came in 1984. Recent decades have been much kinder to them.

Today's sales of game programs should be brisk. More than half of the team's players were on other teams last year. Chris Denorfia, Ernesto Frieri, Ryan Ludwick and Cory Luebke each joined the Padres after Opening Day. Full-fledged newcomers are Jason Bartlett, Jorge Cantu, Samuel Deduno, Alberto Gonzalez, Aaron Harang, Brad Hawpe, Orlando Hudson, Cedric Hunter (who was drafted and developed by the Padres), Rob Johnson, Cameron Maybin, Dustin Moseley, Pat Neshek, Eric Patterson (DL) and Chad Qualls.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday matinee

As I type this ESPN is showing the University of Texas spring football game. Texas leads the Longhorns, 13-7. An incoming freshman running back is signing autographs in the stands. The three ESPN broadcasters, when not talking over each other, are breaking down a backup quarterback's leadership skills. They debate this for about five minutes. By now I'm feeling inadequate as a sport commentator. The Padres today played a game that actually counts, and I don't think I could talk about it for five minutes consecutive. How about five sentences?

1) The biggest play in San Diego's 2-0, broom-holstering defeat was Ryan Ludwick lining into a doubleplay with the bases loaded and the Padres down 1-0 in the sixth; 2) I'm not wild about Orlando Hudson bunting at two pitches to start his at-bat in the sixth with none out, runners on first base and second and Hudson having gone 1-for-2. (He fouled off both, then hit into a forceout that could've been a doubleplay but for another Cardinals goof-up.) 3) Luke Gregerson's pitches, as was the case on Thursday, weren't as sharp as they were early last year; 4) Like the best Longhorns helmet-cracker, Dustin Moseley deserved a game ball, in part because he busted the thumbs of Cardinals hitters; 5) Catching purists frowned when Nick Hundley flunked a difficult test, allowing a hot one-hopper to become a significant wild pitch when he stabbed at it with his mitt turned downward.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

2-0

Smart and selfless spells fun to watch, which describes today's Padres performance. The No. 3 hitter, Orlando Hudson, attempts to drive the ball when he should, then bunts two runners over. The No. 5 hitter, Ryan Ludwick, sees the ball well in every at-bat against Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook but doesn't let his swing to grow overly long. He draws a key walk and lines three hits, the last for a wall-banging double (off a middle reliever). Nick Hundley again looks at home in the No. 8 spot and launches an extra-base hit. Buoyed by the team's steady offense, pitcher Clayton Richard gives himself a run with a safety squeeze bunt. Adrian Gonzalez-like, Chase Headley bashes an opposite-field home run to left-center.

A second gold star in two games goes to Cameron Maybin. Part of the scouting book on him is that he's often overly concerned with getting jammed by fastballs. After making him overly protective of inside heat, Westbrook strikes him out with a pitch well outside. School's still in, though. Maybin reads intent in his next chance when Jason Motte repeatedly tests him inside. Adjusting, Maybin rips a double down the left-field line.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Minor snapshots

Below you'll see who'll be where, pending a few tweaks, when Opening Day arrives for the Padres' four full-season affiliates. Also, at the risk of incurring a fine for super-geekness, I've included the mess of names who'll start the season in extended spring training.

I'm pleased to see the Padres are stocking nearby Lake Elsinore with several true prospects, notably pitcher Matt Lollis, center fielder Reymond Fuentes and third baseman Jedd Gyorko. The Stategic Planners' overly publicized and dubious plan to shoehorn the Triple-A club into Escondido was an affront to Lake Elsinore (not to mention Tucson), so bully for the Storm. As scouts predicted under my byline a few years ago, Drew Cumberland is at second base, where his arm plays better than at shortstop. He's a relentless worker and athletic player who should learn fast. He started at second in the Futures Game last July.  (UDPATE: Cumberland, 22, is a career .316 hitter with a .380 OBP who runs well but has missed a lot of games because of injuries.)


TRIPLE-A TUCSON


Rotation: Castro, LeBlanc (L), Geer, Hefner, Inman.  Other pitchers: Burke, Demark, Flores (L), Leicester, Munter, Perdomo, Poreda (L), Scribner.

Catchers: Martinez, Quiroz

Infielders: 1B Rizzo (L), 2B Forsythe, SS Cabrera (S), 3B Guzman. UT Hoffpauir (DL), UT Parrino (S).

Outfielders: LF Clark (L), CF Durango, RF Cunningham. Others: Baxter (L, DL), Kielty, Payne (L).


DOUBLE-A SAN ANTONIO


Rotation: Bass, Kelly, Musgrave (L), Oramas (L, DL), J. Reyes.  Other pitchers: Brach, Breit, Buschmann, Hynes (L), Italiano, Kunz, Lara, Schmidt (L, DL), Spence (L), Vincent.

Catchers: Phillips (L), Solis, Rodriguez (DL).

Infielders: 1B C. Decker, 2B Cumberland (L), SS Weems, 3B Darnell, UT Blanks (DL), UT Belnome, UT Contreras.

Outfielders: LF J. Decker (L), CF Tekotte, RF Robertson. Other: Carroll (L).


ADVANCED SINGLE-A LAKE ELSINORE


Rotation: DePaula (L), Fetter, Hernandez (L), Lollis, Sullivan.  Other pitchers: Watt (L), Beard, Hamren, Herr (L), McBryde,  Mikolas, Osuna, Pease (L).

Catchers: Haggerty (S), Killian (L).

Infielders: 1B Freiman, 2B Galvez, SS Valdez, 3B Gyorko/Rincon, UT Anna (L).

Outfielders: LF Noel, CF Fuentes (L), RF Liriano. Other: Olabisi (DL).


SINGLE-A FORT WAYNE


Rotation: Branham, Cates, Portillo, Sampson, Werner (L).  Other pitchers: Hardy (L), Jackson, Carvajal, Dominick, Franklin, Marona, Mull (L), Sanchez, Schrader (DL).

Catchers: Quiles, Gale.

Infielders: 1B Cunningham (L), 2B Bisson (L), SS Guinn (S), 3B Blackwood, UT Stubblefield (DL), UT Medica, UT Tremblay.

Outfielders: LF Williams (L),  CF Tate, RF Dore. Others: Domoromo (L, DL), O Garcia (L), Meeley (L).


EXTENDED SPRING TRAINING


Rotation: Barbato, Guerrero, Herrera, Needy, Norwood. Other pitchers: Berroa, Bingham, Castillo, Claveria, J. Corpas, De La Cruz, Ibarra (L), Lara, Ojeda, Ottone, Paz, E. Reyes, Sabo, Scott, Wilkes.

Catchers: Pozo, Daal, Brayton, Gomez, Tyrell.

Infielders: 1B Powers, 2B Skube, SS Altman, 3B Jones. UT Blanco. UT Cabrera. UT McKenna, UT Minyety (S), UT Velazquez.

Outfielders: LF Adamson (L),  CF Martinez, RF Alcantara. Others: Lopez, Stokes.