|First-place Padres envision close, 'fun' stretch run|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 12 July 2007 14:31|
They did it last year, when it took a victory in their final game to claim their second straight NL West title, even though they had the same record as the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
It could happen again this year. The Padres head into the season's second half with a one-game lead over the Dodgers, with Arizona and Colorado lurking not far behind in baseball's tightest division.
``It would be nice to be a few more up than one game, but, you know, good first half and hopefully we'll play better in the second half,'' said 41-year-old Greg Maddux, who's scheduled to start Friday night when the Padres open a three-game series at Arizona.
``I like the makeup of this team,'' said ace Jake Peavy, who started for the NL in Tuesday night's All-Star game. ``We've been there before.''
Pretty much everybody's expecting another close race.
``It's going to be fun in August and September,'' right fielder Brian Giles said.
With the Padres, ``fun'' can be relative.
This team can pitch. The Padres' staff, headed by All-Stars Peavy, Chris Young and Trevor Hoffman, leads the majors with a 3.09 ERA and 12 shutouts. Although Young took the loss in the All-Star game after giving up Ichiro Suzuki's inside-the-park home run, the 6-foot-10 right-hander has a 2.00 ERA, the best in the majors. Still effective at 39, Hoffman has converted 21 straight saves for a total of 25, and has pushed his big league record to 507 for his career.
San Diego's offense, on the other hand, can be painfully nonexistent. While posting the NL's best record at 49-38 - and its worst team batting average, .242 - San Diego has managed to keep games remarkably close.
The Padres have won games with a walk-off walk and a walk-off error. They've won three games while getting just two hits.
As frustrating as it can be to fans, some of whom keep clamoring for the team to get a big bopper, the Padres are winning under rookie manager Bud Black, a former big league pitcher.
``We're a team that has a lot of potential and the ceiling's pretty high still,'' Hoffman said. ``So I think people have underestimated our ability to stay in ballgames with our offense, and we're going to maintain this.''
Figuring that anyone can thrive in laid-back San Diego, management wasn't afraid to trade for outfielder Milton Bradley and catcher Michael Barrett, two players who've had blowups while with other teams.
The Padres haven't gotten to see much of Bradley, though, as he came off the disabled list two days before the break.
Peavy has seen the extremes of run support. The Padres scored 12 runs for him in a win against Baltimore on June 19. Then there have been nights when the lack of runs meant precious little room for error. On April 25 at Arizona, Peavy matched his franchise record with 16 strikeouts and left with a 2-1 lead, only to watch Hoffman surrender Stephen Drew's two-run homer with two outs in the ninth.
``I think we played well. We keep fighting, we keep grinding it out,'' said Peavy, who's 9-3 with a 2.19 ERA and an NL-best 125 strikeouts. ``I think Milton Bradley, I think Michael Barrett, some of the additions we made, are going to make us better for the second half. We've just got to be consistent. Maybe we can get on one of those streaks where we reel off six, seven, eight, nine, 10 in a row and maybe put some pressure on the other clubs.''
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez is mired in a slump, and it's not unusual for a Padres baserunner to reach third with less than two outs and be stranded.
``We've pitched really well and played solid defense behind our pitching,'' Giles said. ``That's what wins you games, that's what wins you championships. We expect offensively that we'll be a little better situational hitters. That's all we really need. You can talk about bats and what you need, but we just need to do the little things to get guys over and get them in.''
Giles isn't a prototypical leadoff batter, but he's been batting first since he came back from the disabled list on June 29, which allowed his little brother, Marcus, to return to the more-familiar No. 2 spot.
Brian Giles' strength is taking pitches, which allows his teammates to see as much of the opposing starter as possible, and getting on base.
Last year, the Padres spoke about winning the division and getting deep into the playoffs, only to lose in four games in the first round to eventual World Series champion St. Louis.
The goal remains the same, but the NL West has improved.
``We're still in good position,'' Brian Giles said. ``The way I look at it, it's our division to lose.''
On Thursday, left-hander David Wells was suspended for seven games and fined $3,000 Thursday by the commissioner's office for his animated argument with an umpire last weekend. Wells said he will appeal.