The following excerpt is taken from the upcoming Ducksnorts book, tentatively scheduled for February 2007 publication. This is part of a chapter that focuses on the Padres’ 7-5 victory over the Rockies on September 4, 2006, at Petco Park, courtesy of a three-run homer off the bat of rookie second baseman Josh Barfield with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
It’s a warm September evening in San Diego and the Padres are fighting for their second straight trip to the playoffs. At 76 degrees, with an 11-mph wind blowing across the Petco Park field from left to right, it’s hard to imagine more ideal conditions for a baseball game.
The Padres will play 25 more games this season, including tonight’s against the Colorado Rockies, who are out of contention but who feature a collection of good young hitters that makes them dangerous on any given night. The Padres are 3 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West and 1 1/2 games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies in the wild card race entering Monday night’s contest. Although the Padres have won three straight and five out of six, they haven’t been able to gain ground on the Dodgers, who have made several late-season acquisitions and who appear to be on the verge of pulling away from the rest of the division.
On the bright side for the Padres, this recent six-game stretch has pushed them into the wild card lead. As recently as August 28, they had found themselves looking up in that race as well (1/2 game behind the Cincinnati Reds).
Tonight, veteran Woody Williams takes the mound for the home team. After Williams finishes his warm-up tosses, plate umpire Bob Davidson calls for the stadium lights to be turned on. It’s a bit puzzling since the sky is still light and the sun won’t set for a few more minutes, but Davidson is a veteran umpire (he worked the 1998 NLCS between the Padres and the Atlanta Braves), so presumably he has a good reason. Unfortunately, because he waits until after Williams has finished his warm-ups, the start of the game is delayed several minutes while the lights are fired up. Padres television commentators Matt Vasgersian and Tony Gwynn note that Williams likes to get the ball and throw it, and express concern that the delay might disrupt his rhythm.
Once the lights finally come on, Rockies leadoff batter Jamey Carroll steps up to the plate. Carroll, a journeyman utility infielder, is enjoying unprecedented success at age 32 and has played his way into the everyday second base job. He is a pesky hitter who takes pitches, fouls them off, gets on base, and generally makes the opposing pitcher work hard. Tonight is no exception, as he draws a six-pitch leadoff walk from Williams.
Next up is first baseman Todd Helton. Predecessor to Peyton Manning as quarterback at the University of Tennessee, successor to Andres “The Big Cat” Galarraga as the Rockies’ first baseman, and former Padres draft pick (2nd round, 1992, didn’t sign), Helton once was one of the most feared power hitters in the National League, pounding 30 or more home runs in each season from 1999 through 2004. It wasn’t just the power, though, as Helton had a .320 or better batting average in each of those seasons, clearing the .340 mark in three of them. In 2000 and 2001, he actually collected more than 100 extra base hits in consecutive seasons.
Helton has enjoyed a brilliant career, and yet for all his accomplishments, he’s never finished higher than fifth in the MVP voting. This could be due to the fact that he plays half his games at Coors Field in Denver, which inflates offensive performance; that he plays first base, an “easy” position; or that MVP voters don’t always know what they’re doing (plenty of examples of this exist throughout history — Joe DiMaggio over Ted Williams in 1941, Dick Groat over Willie Mays in 1960, Ichiro Suzuki over any number of people in 2001). In Helton’s case, the reason was far less insidious — although he always was among the best players in the league, he never was the best in any particular season.
That said, Helton was a great hitter in his prime and still is a very good hitter as he steps to the plate now, at age 32 and entering the decline phase of his career. He still does everything well, just not as well as he did five years ago. Helton is not a batter to be taken lightly, and on the first offering from Williams, he demonstrates exactly why.
The pitch is an 87-mph fastball out over the plate, just above the belt. Padres catcher Josh Bard is set up down and away but Williams leaves the ball way up and Helton hammers it into the first row of seats behind and just to the right of the auxiliary scoreboard in left-center field. Helton has spent much of his career batting in the heart of the order because of his power; now he is in the #2 hole to take advantage of his strong on-base skills. On this swing, however, he looks like the Helton of old, driving a tough pitch (replays show that it may not have been a strike) out of the park to the opposite field.
Helton’s blast gives the Rockies an early 2-0 lead. It is his 14th home run of the year, and the first Williams has allowed in the first inning of a game all season. The Padres pitcher has thrown seven pitches and recorded zero outs. Concerns about his rhythm appear to have been well founded.
Third baseman Garrett Atkins is up next for Colorado. Atkins is following a strong rookie campaign with an even better sophomore season. He hits for average, hits for power, and understands the strike zone. In other words, he’s not the kind of batter you want to fall behind in the count to, which is exactly what Williams does.
With the count 3-1, a hitter can afford to look for a particular pitch, most likely a fastball because that is generally the easiest to throw for a strike (which the pitcher wants to do because issuing walks is bad — if the batter is going to reach base at least make him hit your pitch). Unfortunately, when your fastball barely touches 90 mph, as Williams’ does, it’s hard to sneak the pitch past a hitter, especially one as skilled as Atkins.
Williams winds up and proceeds to make probably his worst pitch of the young evening, delivering an 88-mph fastball down the middle, belt high. Again, Bard is set up at the knees, and again, Williams misses up in the zone with a pitch that Atkins should punish. Fortunately for Williams and the Padres, Atkins pulls off the ball and pops up to first baseman Todd Walker, who makes the catch just steps in front of the home dugout. Finally, Williams has his first out of the game.