The comments section on SignOnSanDiego.com, the Union-Tribune's website, can be a cold, dark place, inhabited largely by nasty, dimwitted online trolls. It was particularly inhospitable for Trevor Hoffman, the Padres' longtime closer, after he gave up three runs in the bottom of the 13th inning of a one-game tiebreaker Monday night and ushered the Colorado Rockies into the playoffs.
One commenter blamed the Padres' dramatic demise on what he or she perceives to be San Diego City Hall's tolerance of homosexuals and illegal immigrants, but many others opined that Hoffman, with a fastball that's not much faster these days than his legendary changeup, is done--'Trevor Time,' they lament, has elapsed.
Hoffman, a certain first-ballot hall-of-famer, will be 40 years old on Oct. 13. Having just finished his 14th year as his team's closer, he is in territory rarely occupied by relief pitchers--only Lee Smith and John Franco were reliable closers for as many seasons as Hoffman has been. But we recall some skeptical fans saying the same thing two years ago when Hoffman's contract was up, and during the last two seasons, he has saved 88 games and posted a 2.77 earned-run average (ERA), which are all-star-caliber stats. For heaven's sake, he's one year removed from a performance many thought should have earned him the Cy Young award, baseball's most prestigious honor for pitchers, one rarely given to relievers. Even including the three runs he gave up Monday, he posted a 2.98 ERA in 2007 and saved 42 games, adding to his all-time saves record, which stands at 524.
Given everything Hoffman has done for the Padres and the city of San Diego, and in light of the fact that he is one of baseball's genuinely good guys, it was heartbreaking to watch him shuffle off the field Monday as the Rockies celebrated. The dispute over the call at home plate, where Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday's hand appeared to have been blocked by Padres catcher Michael Barrett's foot, only added to the pathos. Ideally, Holliday is called out and Hoffman, left with a runner at second and two outs, gets a chance to get out of the inning. On the other hand, the Padres had a crucial call go their way earlier when an umpire ruled that Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins long shot to left field was a double rather than a homer. Such is the nature of baseball--players and umpires alike are human and fallible.
The box scores show two blown saves in Hoffman's last two games, but his appearance in Milwaukee on Saturday could have turned out far different. With two outs and a runner on second, he had a batter--ironically, none other than Padres hall-of-famer Tony Gwynn's son Tony Jr.--completely fooled by changeup after changeup. Like his dad did for 20 seasons in a Padres uniform, Junior just flicked his bat at Hoffman's two-strike pitch and managed to poke it down the right-field line for a game-tying triple. It truly is a game of inches, guesses and luck.
No one knows what would have happened if Padres ace Jake Peavy had been sent out to the mound on Sunday to face the Milwaukee Brewers in the regular-season finale, a game the Padres lost, forcing the sudden-death game against the Rockies. As it happened, Peavy was saved for Monday and ran into a Rockies team that was hotter than any other. The fact of the matter is that at the end of the season--what with Padres outfielders Milton Bradley and Mike Cameron injured, No. 2 starter Chris Young slowly emerging from a mid-season injury and the lineup populated with guys like Geoff Blum, Brady Clark and Scott Hairston--the Rockies were simply the better team and deserved to go to the playoffs.
So, what now? Some of the Internet trolls want Heath Bell installed as the new closer. That's nonsense. As long as Hoffman's ERA remains below 3.00, he's the man. Unfortunately, this might have been Hoffman's last shot at a championship. The next couple of seasons appear to belong to the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers--each are stocked with enormously talented young players. The Padres' farm system is about two years behind. So, General Manager Kevin Towers will need to upgrade to remain competitive. He needs someone who can hit with power, either at second base (Jeff Kent?) or in the outfield, possibly to replace Cameron, who could be moving to Atlanta (Aaron Rowand? Torii Hunter?). He also needs at least one No. 3-caliber starting pitcher, and he needs to resign Bradley.
And the Internet trolls need to get a life.