The San Diego Padres just won a series from the mighty Detroit Tigers, taking 2-of-3 games. San Diego was 3-6 coming into the series, Detroit 5-2. The Tigers were starting two of the last three American League Cy Young Award winners in the series, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. I’m guessing the Las Vegas line on this series did not favor the Padres.
The Padres outplayed the Tigers in this series. They outpitched, outhit, and outdefended them. There were many reasons that the Padres won this series: 5 or 6 stellar defensive plays, Jedd Gyorko’s first home run, some great ABs from Yonder Alonso, a clutch 2-run double from Will Venable, multiple extra base hits from Chase Headley. But the primary reason they took the first and third games of this series was pitching. And the biggest contributor to the pitching? Catcher Rene Rivera.
This is not to take a thing away from the outstanding 1-hit shutout that Andrew Cashner threw in game 1. Indeed, Cashner was brilliant, whiffing 11 Tigers, culminating in a strikeout of the world’s best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, for the final out. Nor I am saying that Tyson Ross wasn’t also very impressive, holding Detroit to 6 hits over 7 innings, while striking out 7, in the Padres’ 5-1 win in the series finale. In fact, both of these pitchers threw their best games of the young season.
The common denominator in these two dominating performances was Rene Rivera.
When the Padres broke camp with three catchers this year, some wondered why. Wouldn’t the extra roster position be better used for an additional infielder? We knew why Yasmani Grandal made the team. He could end up being the Padres’ best hitter this year. And Nick Hundley’s $4 million salary means he’s unlikely to be sent down to Triple A. But why carry Rivera? Sure, he’s a good defensive catcher, throwing out 41% of potential basestealers in his career, but when you have a middle-of-the-order bat like Grandal, and a guy with a guaranteed contract like Hundley, can you really afford to spend a roster spot on the third catcher? Especially one who’s a career .204 hitter? Don’t the Padres have enough problems outscoring opponents?
After this weekend, we know why.
Rivera makes the pitching staff better. Rivera worked behind the dish for both Cashner and Ross this weekend, and Detroit’s lineup, which includes perennial All-stars like Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and Torii Hunter, was limited to 1 run on 7 hits in 18 innings over the two games.
Rivera and the pitchers kept the hitters off balance both nights. The pitch selection baffled hitters like Austin Jackson, who struck out five times in the two games. Rivera was brilliant in framing pitches for Cashner, and probably bought him an extra inch or two at the bottom of the strike zone throughout the game. And when Cashner gets the low strikes called, well, this is the type of result you can get. Ross’ confidence seemed to soar in this game, and after a week of working with pitching coach Darren Balsley on his foot placement on the mound, he pitched to Rivera for the first time this year. In his first two starts, Ross gave up 11 runs in 10.1 innings, pitching once to Hundley and once to Grandal. Yesterday, with Rivera behind the dish, he gave up only one run in 7 innings.
Rivera has caught all of Andrew Cashner’s games this year. I’m guessing he’ll be in the lineup the next time Ross toes the rubber, too.
Rivera has started 5 games this year. The Padres are 4-1 in those games, with the only loss being the game when the Friars were shut out by wunderkind Jose Fernandez. They are 1-6 in games started by Grandal and Hundley. The staff has given up 9 runs in Rivera’s 5 starts. Yes, Rivera is hitting only .152 so far. But his ability to call a game, to raise a pitcher’s confidence level, to turn balls into strikes, might be worth more in runs prevented than his offense is costing in runs scored. So far, that appears to be the case. So far, the Padres are a better team with Rivera behind the plate.
I don’t envy Bud Black in the decision-making he’s going to have to do with his catchers this year. But when it comes to wins and losses, it’s looking like Rene Rivera is his best option.