SAN DIEGO: Over the last three seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been held up as an ideal among small-market franchises. They have earned a National League wild-card berth in each of those seasons, consistently extracting every ounce of talent from payrolls that remain among baseball’s most modest.
For years, the San Diego Padres, who have just two homegrown players on their 25-man roster, have represented the opposite: a team striving to be more than the sum of its parts but, on and off the field, consistently getting in its own way. A 5-9 start to their latest season did not dispel the notion.
Wednesday night at balmy Petco Park, it felt as if the organizations had switched roles. The Padres paraded their way around the bases. The Pirates’ starting pitcher barely went three innings, his defense bumbling behind him. A recently acquired asset provided the exclamation point on San Diego’s 8-2 victory, a series-clincher.
An announced crowd of 20,681 watched 27-year-old left-hander Drew Pomeranz, making his third start for the Padres (6-9), amass a career-high 10 strikeouts over 6 2/3 dominant innings. Three times, he fanned a batter in the minimum three pitches. Three other times, it took just four pitches. More often than not, the Pirates (7-8) flailed helplessly at a biting knuckle curveball that manager Andy Green has called one of the league’s best.
In December, San Diego traded a package featuring first baseman Yonder Alonso to Oakland for a package highlighted by Pomeranz, the fifth overall pick by Cleveland in 2010. He had made his big-league debut in Colorado, struggled in an unyielding environment, been dealt to Oakland, shown some signs there but apparently not enough, and finally landed with the Padres, an organization facing an uncertain future.
Through three starts, Pomeranz has been the team’s best starter, compiling a 2.04 ERA and 25 strikeouts, offering hope that the Padres just might be able to get by while top arm Tyson Ross remains sidelined by a troublesome shoulder. Against Pittsburgh, he didn’t allow a runner to advance past first base until his second inning, when shortstop Alexei Ramirez committed a fielding error.
Pomeranz walked off the field to a standing ovation. He would be tagged with an unearned run on four singles and three walks. Seventy-two of his 111 pitches were strikes. Eight of his 10 strikeouts were secured via the curveball.
The right-handed-hitting pitcher has even readjusted nicely to one of the National League’s quirks; Wednesday, he notched his second single of the year, a seeing-eye RBI through the left side.
It was one of five singles in a nightmare second inning for Pittsburgh southpaw Jeff Locke, who in one 2015 start at San Diego yielded seven runs over four innings. In this encounter, he did not fare much better, done in by what seemed like endless paper cuts.
During the aforementioned inning, the Padres scored four times and sent nine batters to the plate. All but two of their singles stayed in the infield. Two hits could have been officially scored as errors for an uncharacteristically sloppy defense.
In the bottom of the third, the Padres sent eight batters to the plate and unleashed some power. Derek Norris ripped a double. Ramirez tripled. By the end of the frame, they held a 7-0 lead. They hadn’t scored more than five runs in any of their first seven games at Petco Park.
Matt Kemp drilled his fifth home run of the season to lead off the bottom of the fourth, driving Locke from the game. The 431-foot solo shot, which was deposited in the home bullpen in left-center, is the longest of 13 homers at Petco this year.
The Padres finished with 12 hits. Except for Pomeranz, every member of the starting lineup reached base more than once. In an example of the kind of night San Diego enjoyed, leadoff man Jon Jay singled, singled and walked … all in the span of the first three innings.
On defense, the Padres looked the opposite of the Pirates. In the sixth, third baseman Adam Rosales dived to his right to prevent an extra-base hit, scrambled to his feet and fired a strike across the diamond for an out. In the top of the ninth, left fielder Melvin Upton Jr. continued his early-season renaissance, robbing Matt Joyce of a two-run homer with a leaping catch at the wall. The next at-bat ended with Upton sprinting to his right to make a shoestring grab.