Monday, April 18, 2011

Wafer-thin margins

Surf over to another site, kind readers, if you're here to read about the skittish Padres offense.

I have a lifelong Get Out of Jail card where that subject is concerned. Over the years, I've written more words about boring Padres offenses than Hemingway wrote about bullfights. So even though the Padres have suffered three shutouts already, two by a 1-0 score, I don't have much to offer on that topic. I'm pulling out the card tonight. Here it is.

Besides, the wind and cold at Wrigley Field would've made for a daunting shift for anyone paid to hit. With Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano dealing like he usually does against them, even warm weather may not have helped the Padres.

I'll say a few words about the bullpen instead. It's still a good bullpen. A very good bullpen? Sure.

I do wonder whether Chad Qualls can get all of his mojo back from his peak years,  but as excellent Tweep Nathan Veale pointed out, Qualls hadn't allowed an earned run before giving up tonight's only run. And it wasn't his fault that the middle infielders failed to turn a doubleplay at a key point for the second time on this trip.

The challenge that this bullpen faces is, aside from not going bonkers while waiting for the offense to help out, can it be as absurdly good as last year's bullpen?

It's not fair to expect that. Last year's bullpen was a supernatural force. It felt bottomless to me for weeks on end. Watching Padres relievers smother offenses last year jogged me back to early 2005, when Bruce Bochy knew that as a close game stretched onward, he had the upper hand. I also thought back to 1996, when the bullpen constructed by Randy Smith led the National League in ERA.

Opponents likewise dreaded the later innings last year, not only because of Heath Bell, Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson, but because of Joe Thatcher, Ryan Webb (who didn't come up until May), Tim Stauffer and, yes, Edward Mujica. For all his donations to the outfield seats, Mujica didn't walk people. His fastball and splitter could be dominant.

Cory Luebke will be doing a lot if he can be nearly as good as Stauffer was last year in long relief. At this point in 2010, Stauffer already had thrown 10.1 scoreless innings of relief. In three of those games, he went at least two innings. Stauffer made the attrition duels a lot easier for Bud Black.

Bell and Adams actually are off to faster starts than a year ago, suggesting that I'm overstating the early might of last year's bullpen. By this point, Sean Gallagher had given up seven runs in seven games, worse than any Padres reliever now. Then again, the relievers a year ago had stranded 14 of 18 inherited runners, whereas this bullpen has allowed nine of 21 to score.

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