Overlooked San Diego Padres still outplaying and outpitching expectations

Heath Bell has given Padres fans plenty to shout about, recording 23 saves and a 1.72 earned run average.
Heath Bell has given Padres fans plenty to shout about, recording 23 saves and a 1.72 earned run average. (Lenny Ignelzi/associated Press)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

A walk-on in college, an undrafted free agent as a pro, a seven-year minor leaguer, a throw-in to a 2006 trade, Heath Bell, the San Diego Padres' ursine closer, is the perfect symbol of the 2010 Padres -- a criminally overlooked team with a minuscule payroll that has defied the experts all season, entering Wednesday with the best record in the National League and the lowest earned run average in the majors.

And as the symbol of the Padres, Bell is the perfect person to describe the devastation felt in their clubhouse on Sunday when the all-star selections were announced, with not a single Padres pitcher chosen to represent the NL.

"I walked in the clubhouse, gained some weight," deadpanned the 250-pound Bell. "I had a doughnut -- with sprinkles. Shouldn't have had it. But I was depressed." Then, turning serious, he said, "Initially, it's like, dude, how could the best pitching staff in baseball not have an all-star? And then I was just ticked off."

Much as the baseball world was slow to recognize the staying power of the Padres -- 49-34 and leading the NL West by three games entering Wednesday night's game at Nationals Park -- the great minds who constructed the NL all-star team needed until Wednesday afternoon to see fit to send a Padres pitcher to Anaheim, Calif., next week.

An injury to Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo paved the way for Philadelphia Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, who will skipper the NL team, to add Bell to the squad -- satisfying, at least for now, a Padres team that has grown accustomed to such slights over the past three months.

Defying the experts

Most preseason prognostications had the Padres finishing last in their division, and it was widely assumed Bell and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez would be dealt by the July 31 trade deadline. When they went 15-8 in April, it was widely viewed as a fluke.

But two-months-and-change later, the Padres are still outplaying their projections and outpitching the world -- their ERA of 3.11, if it were to hold up, would be the lowest of any major league team in 19 years. In recent weeks, they had begun to sense the greater baseball world was coming around to their side.

And then the all-star snub happened.

"We're still just an afterthought," Bell said. "But that's okay, because at the end of the season we won't be."

Though Gonzalez, their superb slugger, made the NL team as a reserve, not a single Padres pitcher did. Not Bell, with his 23 saves and an ERA that now sits at 1.72. Not setup man Luke Gregerson, with his outrageous 51-to-6 ratio of strikeouts to walks. And not 22-year-old right-hander Mat Latos, who is 9-4 with a 2.62 ERA in his first full season in the majors.

"Were we disappointed? Yes," Manager Bud Black said. "There's this perception out there that we're not the team we appear to be. [But] there's sort of a compliment to our team in there as well. We only have one guy on the all-star team. It shows this truly is a team that gets contributions from a lot of different guys."

Added Gonzalez: "It definitely made some guys angry. But I don't see it as being a team snub, as much as a person-by-person snub. We have four or five guys in here who deserved to make it, based on their numbers."

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