Commentary

Padres can't pin hitting woes on Petco

Originally Published: May 3, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- As the Padres drifted into the visiting clubhouse before a game with the Phillies this week, second baseman Tadahito Iguchi took a seat near the big-screen TV and watched Bob Uecker spew inanities from the broadcast booth in the movie "Major League." Try wrapping your mind around that cross-cultural image for a minute.

Iguchi and interpreter David Yamamoto weren't taking notes, but they did see Pedro Cerrano slip golf club covers over his bats to keep them warm and practice voodoo rituals in the clubhouse. Although we've yet to reach that stage in San Diego, desperation is the same in any language.
Padres' offense (NL rank)
Runs 98 T-15th
BA .225 16th
OBP .296 16th
SLG .333 T-15th
SO 232 2nd
SB 7 T-15th
XBH 66 16th

"Hey, you'll try anything and everything," hitting coach Wally Joyner said when asked whether he has any slump-busting cures in mind.

While the Arizona Diamondbacks were jumping out to a big National League West lead in April, the Padres' offense was a portrait in stagnation. Somewhere between that playoff loss to Colorado in early October and their first eastern road trip, they've turned into the NL's answer to the Kansas City Royals.

If you want to dig a 9½-game hole despite a rotation that includes Jake Peavy, Chris Young and Greg Maddux, try ranking last in the major leagues in runs (98), batting average (.225), on-base percentage (.296) and slugging percentage (.333) through Friday's games. It's a good thing those free-swinging Florida Marlins are around, or the Padres also would rank first in strikeouts.

So here's the obvious question: Is this just an early-season funk, or a harbinger of a long, lost summer in that baseball nirvana by the Pacific Coast?

Bud Black, San Diego's even-tempered, nonalarmist manager, votes funk.

"In any given lineup, when things are going well and you're scoring runs and the offense is clicking, you might have five, six or seven guys really swinging the bat well," Black said. "When things are going along as normal -- win a couple of games, lose a couple -- you have three or four guys in the lineup swinging well. What we have going now, on a given night, is maybe one or two guys swinging well.

"I think we're going to get out of it, and we'll reach the level of what our guys have done in their careers. Over the course of six months, it's never smooth sailing. But this storm has hit early and it's hit hard."

The view from behind home plate isn't quite as optimistic. One advance scout who watched the Padres recently saw an array of hitters who can be pitched to up and down the lineup. The Padres have little power and even less speed, and with the exception of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, there's not a player who evokes fear night in and night out.

"It's a pretty stiff, unathletic group," said a National League front-office man.

As always where the Padres are concerned, the inequities of Petco Park are bound to enter into the conversation. The grumbling isn't close to what we saw four years ago, when Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko were openly disdainful of the wide-open spaces at Petco. But it's perpetually in the back of the hitters' minds.

I think more than anything, it's mental. It's confidence. It can be as easy as a base hit with men in scoring position that will just allow a guy to breathe.

--Padres hitting coach Wally Joyner

When Philadelphia's Pat Burrell hit a routine fly ball that nearly carried into the left-field flower bed at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, the Padres duly noted that it would have fallen 30 feet short of the fence in their home yard. On successive nights, Young and fellow starter Randy Wolf almost went deep. You'll see dogsleds in the Petco parking lot before that happens in San Diego.

"I'm not going to consistently say it, but the ballpark plays a major factor in it -- more than anybody lets on at times," shortstop Khalil Greene said. "That's the reality of it. You don't want to make excuses and say, 'I would have done this if the ballpark was a different size.' But as a hitter, if you hit a ball 380 feet the other way and it's a fly out, that's hard to overcome."

Petco, of course, plays to the Padres' strengths while accentuating the team's shortcomings. General manager Kevin Towers has been a master of building a bullpen on the cheap, and the Padres ranked first in the National League in team ERA in 2006 and 2007. They have a 184-155 home record (a .543 winning percentage) since the ballpark's inception.

No pitcher is better suited to Petco than Young, who has thrown 823 fly balls and only 473 grounders in five big league seasons. And it's worth noting that although the Padres have a feeble .584 on-base/slugging percentage in San Diego, they're 25th in the majors with a .677 OPS on the road. So they've been bad regardless of the venue.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
Derrick Tuskan/Icon SMIAdrian Gonzalez, who has six homers and a .504 slugging percentage, is the Padres' lone offensive threat.
Black is limited in his attempts to make things happen. Brian Giles has a respectable .354 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot, but he stole only four bases in 10 attempts last year -- and that was before microfracture surgery on his right knee. When Giles sits against assorted lefties, Black replaces him with Scott Hairston, who has five steals and a .293 OBP in 261 big league games. You get the picture.

By all accounts, several San Diego hitters have gone outside their comfort zones in an attempt to set things right. Center fielder Jim Edmonds, who returned home to his native Southern California this year, worked out rigorously over the winter in an effort to prove he still has something left at age 37. But Edmonds hurt his calf in spring training, and even though he's healthy now, he has shown no spring in his step or life in his bat. In short, he looks like a guy who's perilously close to the end.

After going deep 27 times last season, Greene has one home run (hit Friday night) in his first 115 at-bats. He's a career .238 hitter in April and May and streaky by nature, so you figure the power will come eventually.

"I've never gotten off to a good start, which is frustrating," Greene said. "It would be nice to go home at the All-Star break and not have to battle to get to .250."

As the spring funk persists, Greene and his teammates come out for extra hitting, do soft-toss drills and devour video to find a clue that might lead to a turnaround. Last month, Boston manager Terry Francona talked about how Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan constantly fretted over David Ortiz's early slump. So you can imagine how poor Joyner feels.

"I just have to keep punching away and work with these guys to get them comfortable at the plate," Joyner said. "I think more than anything, it's mental. It's confidence. It can be as easy as a base hit with men in scoring position that will just allow a guy to breathe."

There doesn't appear to be much help on the way. Catcher Michael Barrett is out until at least mid-May with an elbow injury, and San Diego's top prospects haven't exactly torn it up in Triple-A ball. Left fielder Chase Headley is hitting .245 and second baseman Matt Antonelli .180 for the Portland Beavers.

"I think we're all trying to be the guy who can get us over that hump," Gonzalez said. "We're all trying to get that big hit or big home run that can get us to a point where we can relax. One of the things I've learned about baseball is, the harder you try, the worse you get."

Hey, everyone admires an honest day's work. In the Padres' case, it had better start leading to a few more doubles, triples and home runs.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer