Monday, April 23, 2012

Review and Preview

Cory Luebke is getting to know himself as a major league pitcher. That's my takeaway from Leubke's strong performance, which ranked as the No. 1 highlight for the Padres in their four-game split with the Phillies.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Luebke threw a lot of fastballs. Actually, it wasn't the number of fastballs that stood out as much as when Luebke threw them. With two strikes, he substituted fastballs for sliders. The pitch of the game was Luebke's two-strike fastball to cleanup man Hunter Pence. Luebke aimed high and Pence struck out swinging at the head-high pitch.

Luebke wasn't pinpoint, but he had enough stuff to go eight innings, a career high, with two hits and no runs allowed. Several Padres said the victory over Roy Halladay lifted the team's confidence, along with ending a four-game skid. Even batting practice the next day was more spirited.

The caveat is that I can't recall a Phillies offense in the Manuel Era that was as talent-challenged as this one. Tonight the Phillies didn't score in six innings against Diamondbacks lefty Wade Miley, a No. 5 starter.

Scouts said several Padres hitters appeared to be struggling "between the ears" early in the series. The offense's breakout over the final two games included continued production from Chase Headley, improved pitch recognition from Yonder Alonso and Nick Hundley's home run off a curveball from Joe Blanton.

The Washington Nationals, known here as the Swamp Gnats, will be in San Diego to face the Padres tonight.

I'll write about the Gnats at length below because it's the first time I've thought them interesting, and not only because Stephen Strasburg is healthy and pitching for them. Strasburg, bear in mind, should be pitching for the Padres, as I wrote two years ago.

I think the Gnats have a puncher's shot at winning the National League East.

Led by Strasburg, the Gnats have defined power pitching in the early season. Notice I didn't say power throwing. Somehow, the Gnats led the majors in strikeouts as of two days ago yet also ranked fourth in fewest pitches per inning.

Manager Davey Johnson is another reason to believe Washington can contend for the division title, which would be headline news in D.C. as the Gnats have never had a winning season or finished above third place in their seven years. Their franchise fathers, the Montreal Expos, never won the National League East, although in fairness to them, they were denied a good shot at it by the labor stoppage of 1994. (The Padres, by comparison, have won five NL West titles since they and the Expos entered the major leagues in 1969).

Johnson is doing what he does best: Building the confidence of his players, and not just through happy talk.

Bruce Bochy said that when he played for Johnson with the Mets, Johnson untracked Bochy's career by convincing him that he had the talent to look for and turn on fastballs, rather than continue to try to hit the ball to all fields.

Johnson believes in building and maintaining a strong bench, a core belief that Bochy absorbed and later applied from day one as a Padres manager.

Whereas many Gnats teams were shallow, a contributing factor to the franchise's 7-23 record against the Padres from 2005-10, this club has some depth. The B squadders already have won a few games.

Johnson likes Xavier Nady, who began his career with the Padres, as a bench player. The backup catcher, Jesus Flores, may be good enough to start for several teams (he is blocked by Wilson Ramos, whose former employer, the Twins, once told the Padres that Heath Bell would't bring Ramos in a trade). Infielder Steve Lombardozzi is a 23-year-old who could end being a starter. We'll see if Mark DeRosa and Chad Tracy can hold off old age.

Such is the rotation's depth that John Lannan, the team's Opening Day starter in 2009 and 2010, was optioned to Triple-A despite throwing pretty  well in spring training. The No. 5 starter, Ross Detwiler, has a sub-1.00 ERA after three outings.

The Gnats will have to find answers within their bullpen, which won't regain closer and Stanford alum Drew Storen before the summer.

Michael Morse, the team's top hitter in 2011, won't be back before June, either.

Center field is a cavity. The offense strikes out too much and gets on base too seldom.

The interleague schedule poses trouble, personified by the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays.

The Gnats will be tested if second baseman Danny Espinosa, an Orange County product who hit 21 home runs for them last year,  falls victim to the sophomore slump. He is off to a slow start.

If the team needs fortifying, however, general manager Mike Rizzo will have resources to make moves. The farm system offers trade chips, not to mention consensus elite prospect Bryce Harper. With a payroll in the bottom 12 and an owner who is eager to win, the Gnats can buy talent this summer if Rizzo wants to rent a player or two.

The Gnats (12-4) have exploited a soft schedule in compiling the National League's second-best record. The Padres (5-12) will not be overlooked by any Gnats players who've been with the team for more than two years. The six series in San Diego between the teams from 2005-10 all went to the Padres, who were 13-5 in those games. In Petco's first month, Frank Robinson brought the final Expos team here. The Hall of Fame slugger appeared to age several years over the four games. Wondering if it was Petco Park playing large or his team's ineptitude, Robinson watched Bochy's Padres sweep by scores of 3-2, 3-0, 5-4 and 2-1.

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