Quick healer Klesko a pleasant surprise
Slugger missed most of '06, but has shown his timing is back
SAN DIEGO -- No one would have faulted Ryan Klesko if he stepped into the batter's box and struggled in September.But he didn't. Klesko has shown no ill effects from surgery on his left shoulder, and, quick as a Jake Peavy fastball, he has shown he can be a dangerous pinch-hitter for San Diego. "Probably three weeks ago, I never thought he could play in a game," Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. "Really and truly. Let alone play, step in and hit offspeed pitches. "I've only seen one other guy do something like that, and that was Tony Gwynn. The four or five at-bats Ryan's had in these games, they're staggering." The 35-year-old lefty took his first Major League at-bat of the 2006 season on Sept. 20. Surgery on the slugger's left shoulder a week into the regular season kept him out of games until August, when he began his rehabilitation assignment with Class A Lake Elsinore. In eight games with the Storm, Klesko hit .273 (8-for-22) with two doubles and one RBI. "Those 20 at-bats I got in the Minor Leagues went really well," said Klesko, who was acquired by the Padres in December 1999. "The last three games, I was hitting line drives all over the place. I was really starting to feel I was getting real close." Just when it seemed he was getting close to heading to Portland to face Triple-A caliber pitching for his next rehab step, Klesko injured his back, keeping him out another four weeks. "Those rehab games were of no value, because after that, he was out for another month or so," said Rettenmund. What did have some value in Klesko's mind were the at-bats he made in simulated games in the weeks leading up to his Padres 2006 debut. Klesko said he made as many at-bats as he could against Padres relievers to try to get the timing back he lost after suffering the back injury. Right before his return, he said he had four or five quality at-bats over about 20 pitches against Padres pitchers Chan Ho Park and Scott Williamson, and that those were key to his immediate success at the plate. When Klesko stepped into the batter's box on Sept. 20 at PETCO Park, Padres manager Bruce Bochy put him in at a harmless time, just for Klesko to get his Major League bearings. The Padres were trailing the Diamondbacks, 8-2, in the ninth, but Klesko came in and drew a walk against reliever Brandon Medders. A walk was a good sign. Klesko's rehab wasn't just about losing timing at the plate after such a long layoff. It was also about being able to recognize what pitches were coming at him, and the ability to lay off the bad ones.
The Padres received an even better sign of Klesko's progress in his three other at-bats in the regular season. Klesko went 2-for-3 with a double and two RBIs. For Rettenmund, Klesko's ability at the plate in such a short amount of time is almost mystifying."To be able to hit offspeed pitches and not play for three or four months, you can ask anyone in this room -- that's a tough challenge," Rettenmund said. "That's harder than hitting a fastball, because you might be able to gear it up and catch a fastball. But seeing and recognizing offspeed pitches, that usually takes time." Time was not a luxury Klesko had, but he made the most of the situation. As a result, the Padres didn't dare leave him off the 25-man playoff roster. Klesko didn't let them down in his first postseason at-bat of 2006, hitting a single down the left-field line in Thursday's 2-0 loss. The Southern California native had one of only two Friar hits off Cardinals starter Jeff Weaver. Even Klesko said he was surprised at how quickly he adjusted to facing big-league pitching again. "Especially breaking pitches, I've been staying on them, but like I said, I just got locked in early," Klesko said. "I was just like, 'Man, this is great,' because everyone had written me off, and in the back of my mind, I knew I was just going to need a few. The [playoff] race was so tight, it was almost like impossible to even get in there. It just worked out to where my timing came back quick." The Padres are just as thankful that Klesko's timing came back so soon, but San Diego finds itself in an 0-2 hole in the NLDS against St. Louis. Game 3 takes place Saturday, when Klesko's bat off the bench might be needed again. Unfortunately, Klesko's pinch-hit didn't end up leading to a Padres run in the Game 2 loss. After the game, most were discussing the possibility of it being pitcher David Wells' last start this season, and most likely of his career. For Klesko, a free agent at season's end, he thought of Wells while sitting in the dugout on Thursday, but his thoughts also wandered onto his own future with the Padres. "It's kind of sentimental for all of us," he said. "It's a tough one to swallow. Just sitting in the dugout, I was thinking it could be my last game played here, too."
Amanda Branam is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.