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Healthy Peavy able to shoulder the load

San Diego pitcher Jake Peavy embodies a baseball truism and parlor game: When a ballplayer's gifts are so profound they're difficult to put into words, it's best to just stow the superlatives and go for the comparisons.

Peavy and Houston's Roy Oswalt have little in common in terms of mechanics or repertoire, but they're both wiry, undersized Southerners with electric stuff and gumption in abundance. So that's one name to check off your list.

"I don't know Roy personally," said Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley. "But from what I've seen, neither one of those guys has any fear. They're both willing to cut the ball loose and trust their talent and ability."

San Diego manager Bud Black, a California native, summons another name from four decades ago. Black assesses Peavy's delivery -- that three-quarter motion and the nasty horizontal stuff -- and sees a pocket-sized version of Big D, Don Drysdale.

Finally, let's crank up the way-back machine to Peavy's formative years in the minors. Baseball America's 2002 Prospect Handbook ranked "Jacob Peavy" as the third-best prospect in the San Diego system behind third baseman Sean Burroughs and pitcher Dennis Tankersley, and praised him for his live arsenal and ability to put his pitches wherever he wants, whenever he wants.

"One veteran scout says Peavy is the closest thing to Greg Maddux he has seen, and Double-A Southern League managers seconded that comparison," BA wrote.

As prospects from Felix Hernandez to Francisco Liriano can attest, praise from Southern League managers isn't quite the same as having your Hall of Fame ticket punched. If injuries don't foul up the story line, there's the challenge of facing smarter, more patient hitters and learning to adapt.

For every Roger Clemens who makes it big, there's a corresponding Roger Salkeld who doesn't.

So far this season, it's all glowing headlines and adulation for Peavy, who has transcended merely "good" at age 26 and graduated to co-captain of the All-World Team with Oakland's Dan Haren.

Peavy has a 1.68 ERA in 12 starts and is second in the major leagues in strikeouts with 92 behind Erik Bedard (95). Opponents are batting .202 against him, with a ridiculous .247 slugging percentage.

Peavy's big "wow" moment came April 25 against Arizona, when he struck out 16 Diamondbacks and nine in a row during one stretch to fall one short of Tom Seaver's record. The feat was particularly impressive given that eight straight Arizona hitters went down swinging before Chad Tracy took a called third strike.

Peavy poses several challenges for a batter. He can hit 95 mph with his fastball; his cutter and slider have freakish, Wiffle ball-like movement; and it's hard for hitters to tell what's coming because of his deceptive motion and the way he jumps off the rubber as he's completing his delivery.

He also plays to win. Peavy developed a love for the game from his late grandfather, Blanche Peavy, and he still pitches with the initials "BP" inscribed under his cap in tribute. Peavy is passionate about swinging a bat, running the bases or bolting off the mound in pursuit of pop flies, just like that scrawny little leaguer 15 years ago in Alabama.

"I think his best asset is his competitiveness," said Giants infielder Rich Aurilia, a former Padre. "I loved playing with the guy. You knew every time out he'd give you everything he had, and he'd be totally angry with himself if he didn't."

Peavy was emotionally out of sorts for much of the 2006 season. He emerged from the World Baseball Classic with tendinitis in his right shoulder, and he was hurting all the way to July, when he received a cortisone shot to relieve the discomfort

Peavy's underlying numbers -- strikeout-to-walk ratio and hits per inning pitched -- were more than respectable. But the Padres thought he was too concerned with striking hitters out, and too inclined to pile up big pitch counts and put a strain on the bullpen.

In reality, Peavy's shoulder problems prohibited him from throwing between starts and developing a feel for his pitches. He was like an actor playing a part without a chance to practice his lines.

Jake Peavy

Peavy

Starting Pitcher
San Diego Padres

Profile

"It makes for a long year when you're not 100 percent healthwise," Peavy said. "It's hard enough to compete at this level when you feel good, much less when you don't."

Peavy spent the winter healing up at his home in Semmes, Ala., and doing a little charity work on the side. In January, he was on his way to the Dominican Republic on a church mission when he double-parked his vehicle to drop off his bags. He got into an altercation with a Mobile airport security guard, and the next thing he knew, he was in handcuffs.

Peavy subsequently apologized, leading to the dismissal of disorderly conduct charges. But he still regards the incident as "embarrassing" and unnecessary.

"I didn't try to be disrespectful," Peavy said. "It was 5 o'clock in the morning, and Mobile Regional Airport is about as big as this clubhouse. I had no idea a security person would give me a citizen's arrest because I left my car there. I was willing to pay a $100 ticket to make a $2,000 flight."

A month later, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, the Padres quickly discerned that Peavy would not be going 11-14 again this season. Camp was barely under way when Balsley turned to Black and observed, "Jake has a really good look in his eye." Peavy's teammates noticed that same sense of purpose.

"I think he's real ticked off about last year," said infielder Geoff Blum. "Just knowing how Peavy is, I think he felt indirectly responsible for us not doing as well as we could have. He's put it on his shoulders to prove everybody wrong."

I see him as a guy who's composed, taking the responsibility of being our lead dog, and really handling this thing very well. He's capable of doing great things.

Padres manager Bud Black

When Peavy needs guidance, he has no shortage of places to turn. Balsley is one of baseball's truly underrated pitching coaches. The San Diego staff has two future Hall of Famers in Maddux and closer Trevor Hoffman, and a 233-game winner in David Wells, who has never received enough credit as a student of the game.

The Padres have so many voices that Black, a successful pitching coach under Mike Scioscia in Anaheim, has been content to step aside and leave the detail work to Balsley and bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds. Judging from the Padres' MLB-best 2.94 team ERA, the approach is working just fine.

With his recent run of success, Peavy is doing more and more media interviews, and he's frequently asked about the "Maddux effect" on his performance. San Diego signed the four-time Cy Young Award winner in December.

"There's definitely stuff I can take from his game and implement in mine," Peavy said, "but there's no way I can go out and try to emulate and be Greg Maddux."

Some things, a professional just has to learn for himself. While Peavy's stuff is more consistent this season, the Padres also talk about his coolness and maturity on the mound. He's in less of a rush to escape trouble, and you can practically see him take a step back and a deep breath as he executes his plan.

At heart, Peavy remains a classic good ol' boy, with a fondness for hunting, fishing, NASCAR and Crimson Tide football. Like his good buddy, San Diego Chargers quarterback and fellow Alabamian Philip Rivers, he has embraced his new life as a San Diego sports celebrity and all the obligations that go with it.

"I see him as a guy who's composed, taking the responsibility of being our lead dog, and really handling this thing very well," Black said. "He's capable of doing great things."

To the dismay of the entire National League, Jacob Peavy has grown up.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.