Three Strikes: Padres, Porcello and perfection

Stan McNeal analyzes three hot topics in Major League Baseball:

Strike 1: Eckstein and the Padres refuse to fade
David Eckstein still has a baby face but at 35 on a Padres club full of 20-somethings, he has become the old guy in the lineup. "Luckily, we have Matt Stairs, too," says Eckstein of the 42-year-old pinch hitter.

David Eckstein provides a veteran presence on the young Padres.
David Eckstein provides a veteran presence on the young Padres.

Eckstein continues to prove wrong all those who, as long ago as 2002, said he didn’t have enough game to play every day. Two World Series rings and a World Series MVP award later, Eckstein has moved from shortstop to second base but still is starting and remains as pesky as ever at the plate (two strikeouts in his first 121 plate appearances this season). He also has embraced his role as veteran leader.

"These guys make that enjoyable," Eckstein says. "I don’t have to remind someone to run hard when they hit a popup. It’s more like make sure you keep up that meanness on the field. I have guys on other teams come up to me and say, ‘You guys play the game the right way.’ "

Pegged for last in the NL West, the Padres have pitched and scratched their way to first place and, at 20-12, are off to their best start since they went to the World Series in 1998. Jon Garland has boosted a rotation that hasn’t completed a game but has a 2.78 ERA, though the real strength of the staff has been the NL’s best bullpen (2.58 ERA).

On offense, only Adrian Gonzalez figures to hit 20 homers. Yet for a small-ball team, the Padres don’t hit much for average (.243) and strike out too much (second only to the Diamondbacks in the NL). So far, though, their lack of production hasn’t caught up to them.

"We’re going to put pressure on the defense other than hitting doubles and home runs," Eckstein says. "That’s the biggest difference with this club."

The Padres lead the majors in steals and make the most of the runs they score. Consider how they beat the Giants in their first four meetings. They walked 12 times Tuesday night and won 3-2. Last month, they got one hit but won 1-0. The previous night, they won on a 10th-inning homer off the left-field foul pole from their most unlikely power source, Eckstein.

"I was more in shock than anything," Eckstein says. "I thought it was going foul but somehow, luckily, in that corner the wind blows it back a little bit and it stayed true."

Eckstein, too, has stayed true. When we talked the other day, it was three hours before first pitch. I told him that I bet he already had been to the batting cage, hit the weight room and had a massage. And that he was ready for batting practice.

"Well, I haven’t gone to the weight room yet because we don’t stretch for another hour. But I will," Eckstein said.

Strike 2: Porcello needs a break(ing ball)
If the Tigers want to stay in the AL Central race, their rotation needs to pick it up. Their league-leading bullpen and Miguel Cabrera-led offense can’t be expected to shoulder such a load for the long haul.

Rick Porcello needs a third pitch.
Rick Porcello needs a third pitch.

Dontrelle Willis has been the Tigers’ most effective starter but although he has provided a hopeful comeback story, a 3.99 ERA isn’t what you want leading your staff. Justin Verlander has overcome a slow start and lowered his ERA to 4.50, but Max Scherzer, Jeremy Bonderman and Rick Porcello have ERAs well north of 5.00. The result is a 5.72 for the AL’s worst rotation ERA.

Porcello was one of 2009’s feel-good stories when he won 14 games as a 20-year-old rookie just two years out of high school. Now there is talk that he could benefit from more time in the minors. Porcello has lasted six innings just once this season, and that was against the Royals. He took a 7.50 ERA into Wednesday’s start against the Yankees.

According to a scout, hitters have learned to take advantage of Porcello’s lack of a major league-quality third pitch to go with his fastball and changeup. "I don’t know if he had enough time to let his breaking ball develop," the scout said. "And when a hitter isn’t worried about a guy throwing a breaking ball, all of a sudden their ability to hit goes up."

Strike 3: Practice perfect etiquette
A’s lefthander Gio Gonzalez missed the first two innings of Dallas Braden’s perfect game Friday because he was working out. Once in the dugout, he spent the rest of the game not exactly sure what he was rooting for.

"I didn’t know it was a perfect game until after the game when it was announced," Gonzalez said. "I thought it was a no-hitter. Throughout the game, I’m saying to myself, ‘Come on Dallas, get the no-hitter. Get the no-hitter.’ "

Gonzalez’s teammates couldn’t correct him because they weren’t saying anything. "Nobody was talking," Gonzalez said. "Everybody was on one side of the dugout except Dallas and (backup catcher) Josh Donaldson. They were sitting next to each other, but I don’t think Josh said a word to him.

"You don’t move in a situation like that. You just keep doing what you’ve been doing the whole game. I had a baseball in my hand the whole time, and I didn’t let it go until we won and then I threw it in the stands. Like, ‘Yes, I can get rid of this ball already.’ "

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Sponsored link: Padres tickets available

Stan McNeal analyzes three hot topics in Major League Baseball:

Strike 1: Eckstein and the Padres refuse to fade
David Eckstein still has a baby face but at 35 on a Padres club full of 20-somethings, he has become the old guy in the lineup. "Luckily, we have Matt Stairs, too," says Eckstein of the 42-year-old pinch hitter.

David Eckstein provides a veteran presence on the young Padres.
David Eckstein provides a veteran presence on the young Padres.

Eckstein continues to prove wrong all those who, as long ago as 2002, said he didn’t have enough game to play every day. Two World Series rings and a World Series MVP award later, Eckstein has moved from shortstop to second base but still is starting and remains as pesky as ever at the plate (two strikeouts in his first 121 plate appearances this season). He also has embraced his role as veteran leader.

"These guys make that enjoyable," Eckstein says. "I don’t have to remind someone to run hard when they hit a popup. It’s more like make sure you keep up that meanness on the field. I have guys on other teams come up to me and say, ‘You guys play the game the right way.’ "

Pegged for last in the NL West, the Padres have pitched and scratched their way to first place and, at 20-12, are off to their best start since they went to the World Series in 1998. Jon Garland has boosted a rotation that hasn’t completed a game but has a 2.78 ERA, though the real strength of the staff has been the NL’s best bullpen (2.58 ERA).

On offense, only Adrian Gonzalez figures to hit 20 homers. Yet for a small-ball team, the Padres don’t hit much for average (.243) and strike out too much (second only to the Diamondbacks in the NL). So far, though, their lack of production hasn’t caught up to them.

"We’re going to put pressure on the defense other than hitting doubles and home runs," Eckstein says. "That’s the biggest difference with this club."

The Padres lead the majors in steals and make the most of the runs they score. Consider how they beat the Giants in their first four meetings. They walked 12 times Tuesday night and won 3-2. Last month, they got one hit but won 1-0. The previous night, they won on a 10th-inning homer off the left-field foul pole from their most unlikely power source, Eckstein.

"I was more in shock than anything," Eckstein says. "I thought it was going foul but somehow, luckily, in that corner the wind blows it back a little bit and it stayed true."

Eckstein, too, has stayed true. When we talked the other day, it was three hours before first pitch. I told him that I bet he already had been to the batting cage, hit the weight room and had a massage. And that he was ready for batting practice.

"Well, I haven’t gone to the weight room yet because we don’t stretch for another hour. But I will," Eckstein said.

Strike 2: Porcello needs a break(ing ball)
If the Tigers want to stay in the AL Central race, their rotation needs to pick it up. Their league-leading bullpen and Miguel Cabrera-led offense can’t be expected to shoulder such a load for the long haul.

Rick Porcello needs a third pitch.
Rick Porcello needs a third pitch.

Dontrelle Willis has been the Tigers’ most effective starter but although he has provided a hopeful comeback story, a 3.99 ERA isn’t what you want leading your staff. Justin Verlander has overcome a slow start and lowered his ERA to 4.50, but Max Scherzer, Jeremy Bonderman and Rick Porcello have ERAs well north of 5.00. The result is a 5.72 for the AL’s worst rotation ERA.

Porcello was one of 2009’s feel-good stories when he won 14 games as a 20-year-old rookie just two years out of high school. Now there is talk that he could benefit from more time in the minors. Porcello has lasted six innings just once this season, and that was against the Royals. He took a 7.50 ERA into Wednesday’s start against the Yankees.

According to a scout, hitters have learned to take advantage of Porcello’s lack of a major league-quality third pitch to go with his fastball and changeup. "I don’t know if he had enough time to let his breaking ball develop," the scout said. "And when a hitter isn’t worried about a guy throwing a breaking ball, all of a sudden their ability to hit goes up."

Strike 3: Practice perfect etiquette
A’s lefthander Gio Gonzalez missed the first two innings of Dallas Braden’s perfect game Friday because he was working out. Once in the dugout, he spent the rest of the game not exactly sure what he was rooting for.

"I didn’t know it was a perfect game until after the game when it was announced," Gonzalez said. "I thought it was a no-hitter. Throughout the game, I’m saying to myself, ‘Come on Dallas, get the no-hitter. Get the no-hitter.’ "

Gonzalez’s teammates couldn’t correct him because they weren’t saying anything. "Nobody was talking," Gonzalez said. "Everybody was on one side of the dugout except Dallas and (backup catcher) Josh Donaldson. They were sitting next to each other, but I don’t think Josh said a word to him.

"You don’t move in a situation like that. You just keep doing what you’ve been doing the whole game. I had a baseball in my hand the whole time, and I didn’t let it go until we won and then I threw it in the stands. Like, ‘Yes, I can get rid of this ball already.’ "

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Sponsored link: Padres tickets available

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*