PHOENIX -- Changing hitting coaches in the quest for an offensive upgrade seems like a knee-jerk move at best and classic scapegoating at its worst. If your team is looking for cosmetic change, why not just mow the infield grass a little lower or replace the silverware on the postgame food spread?
When the San Diego Padres fired Merv Rettenmund on July 31 and replaced him with Wally Joyner, they weren't looking for a cure-all -- just a little more energy and a different voice.
Rettenmund, a popular, veteran instructor and organizational good soldier, was slowed by a bout of mononucleosis in the spring. As the Padres labored to score runs in April, May and June -- losing to Colorado's Aaron Cook on a 74-pitch complete game at their nadir -- people around the team could see the strain of the job beginning to weigh on him.
"Merv did everything he could," manager Bud Black said. "We just felt at the time that it might be a good thing to get a different perspective on a few offensive issues."
In hindsight, San Diego's offensive resurgence has had more to do with Milton Bradley, Brian Giles, Adrian Gonzalez and the men swinging the bats than the guy standing behind the cage dispensing tips. But if there's such a thing as coach-player synergy, the Padres have it in abundance.
The Padres put a new twist on the art of punctuation Monday, beginning their big three-game series against Arizona with an exclamation point. They beat up on Micah Owings with four early homers, handed things over to Greg Maddux and the bullpen, and blew out the Diamondbacks 10-2 before a Labor Day crowd of 30,531 at Chase Field.
The NL West race, which until recently looked about as disheveled as Eric Byrnes' toiletry bag, is developing a semblance of order. The Padres have won four of their last five meetings with Arizona to take a one-game lead in the division. The Diamondbacks, 5-10 in their last 15 games, can now look down and see Los Angeles lurking just three games behind in the wild-card chase.
And the Padres, officially in "seize the day" mode, are giving serious thought to pitching staff ace Jake Peavy on three days' rest in the series finale Wednesday. Peavy is 8-0 with a 1.22 ERA on the road this season, so that's not a welcome development for the Arizona hitters.
"He's throwing as good now as he has in his career," general manager Kevin Towers said of Peavy, who's 16-5 with a 2.10 ERA.
Of course, if the Padres keep hitting like this, they can pitch Lance McCullers and Frank Seminara in the next two games and it might not make a difference. Consider:
• In August, the Padres ranked third in the major leagues in extra-base hits behind Atlanta and Pittsburgh and seventh in OPS at .816.
• Giles, providing the spark at leadoff, went deep twice off Owings on Monday, including a mammoth 427-foot shot to right center field. After hitting two homers in the first four months, Giles has gone deep eight times since Aug. 10.
• Since an 18-11 victory over Houston on July 29, the Padres are hitting .307 on the road. They've scored 105 runs in their last 15 games away from Petco Park.
The Padres, as everybody knows, have been conflicted about Petco Park since Phil Nevin pronounced the place "Barry Bonds proof" and labeled the spacious right field gaps "ridiculous" in the spring of 2004. To this day, no one can say for sure whether Nevin or former Padres teammate Ryan Klesko hated the place more.
San Diego's hitters have since reached an uneasy truce with their home park. The Padres are 171-143 at Petco, and San Diego's hitters know the team derives an advantage from the pitchers' comfort zone at home. But the place is still a stat killer no matter how you look at it.
"If you put the best lineup in baseball in our park, the numbers would be bad," Gonzalez said. "When we get on that plane out of San Diego, every hitter is a happy hitter."
Gonzalez, San Diego's resident hammer, was bad regardless of venue during an extended slump earlier this summer. He hit four home runs in 201 at-bats in June and July.
In hindsight, Gonzalez attributes his problems to paralysis caused by overthinking. If a pitch was outside, he was intent on hitting it the opposite way. If it was inside, he was intent on pulling it. In his desire to go with the pitch, he had become almost robotic in his approach.
"Before you know it, things aren't happening because there's too much going on," Gonzalez said. "I'm just kind of a dumb hitter right now. I go up there and say, 'If I get the fastball, I'm going to try and get the head out.' That's all."
I'm just kind of a dumb hitter right now. I go up there and say, 'If I get the fastball, I'm going to try and get the head out.' That's all.
--Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez
Joyner, a Rettenmund protégé, adheres to many of the same mechanical tenets and philosophies as his predecessor, so the Padres haven't had to make much of an adjustment on that front.
But Joyner does place special emphasis on what Towers calls a "patient-aggressive" approach -- urging his hitters to work deep into counts and wait for the right pitch before finding one they can drive.
The Padres have also been impressed with Joyner's upbeat, enthusiastic demeanor.
"When you play in our ballpark, it can drag on you," Gonzalez said. "I think it took its toll on Merv. When you bring in a new face, he hasn't seen that failure yet. Wally came in with that positive attitude -- that we're going to get it done. He gave us confidence."
Ultimately, the Padres know they'll go as far as their pitching takes them. Peavy, Chris Young and Maddux are a potentially formidable threesome in a postseason series. And while the San Diego bullpen has had a few hiccups, it's still stronger than most relief contingents in baseball.
It's the sight of all those Padres hitters tearing into balls and circling the bases that makes you wonder what's gotten into these guys lately. Giles, Gonzalez, Geoff Blum and Kevin Kouzmanoff all had a chance to work on their home run trots Monday.
"I think we're gonna have the league in here tomorrow testing us," Blum joked.