Overlooked San Diego Padres still outplaying and outpitching expectations

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; D05

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."

Bouncing back

The Padres haven't been a factor in the playoff race this late in the season since 2007, when they lost an epic, one-game playoff to the Colorado Rockies. What followed was the slow disintegration of a franchise:

-- The Padres' owner, John Moores, went through a messy divorce from wife Becky, and subsequently sold his controlling interest in the team.

-- Trevor Hoffman, their legendary closer, was let go following the 2008 season, and ace Jake Peavy was traded last July, both moves stemming largely from financial reasons.

-- And last October, the team fired longtime general manager Kevin Towers, replacing him with 36-year-old Jed Hoyer, a former protege of Theo Epstein in Boston. The current roster, while partly bearing Hoyer's imprint, is still largely Towers's construction.

Meanwhile, the Padres were a combined 48 games below .500 in 2008-09, getting outscored by more than 125 runs in both seasons, as attendance at Petco Park fell from 2.9 million in 2007 to 2.4 million in 2008 and just 1.9 million in 2009.

However, what was widely overlooked last year was the fact the Padres went 37-25 over the season's final nine weeks, posting the NL's second-best record during that span.

"That's when I knew we had something [for 2010]. We were beating teams that were in contention," Gonzalez said. "We went into this year knowing we could beat anybody."

Instead of resigning themselves to their presumed fates -- trade bait at this year's July 31 deadline -- Gonzalez and Bell vowed to make it impossible for the Padres' new ownership to trade them.

"We just basically told each other, 'The only way to stop the trade talk was to go out there and be in first place in July,' " Bell said. "And I'd say it's stopped."

If anything, the Padres may be looking to add a piece or two at the trade deadline.

They have an obvious need for a power bat, as Gonzalez's 16 home runs through Tuesday were twice as many as anyone else on the team. However, Hoyer has vowed not to compromise the team's pitching depth by trading an arm for a bat.

For that matter, they also can't add much salary to their $37.8 million payroll.

Besides, making a big trade to add a big bat might make the rest of baseball sit up and take notice. And for now, the Padres themselves are doing just fine with no one paying them any attention.

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