Penny glad to be joined by first-timers
Dodgers ace back at All-Star Game with Martin, Saito
SAN FRANCISCO -- Brad Penny isn't starting the All-Star Game, but he isn't tipping off his pitches, either. And that's a tradeoff he'll take any day as he gets ready for a relief role, if summoned by manager Tony La Russa, as the National League tries to snap its exasperating skid against the American League's finest at AT&T Park on Tuesday evening.Penny clearly is more excited for his Dodgers teammates, catcher Russell Martin and closer Takashi Saito, each making his first appearance in the Midsummer Classic. It's not that Penny is unenthused about his second trip to the big show; it's just that he had enough thrills to last a lifetime in his All-Star debut. At this time one year ago, Penny was getting ready to start for the NL in Pittsburgh. He came out dispensing premium gas and was absolutely overpowering -- right up until Vladimir Guerrero stepped up in the second inning and launched one of his upper-90s fastballs into the seats. But that wasn't because the Angels slugger knew what was coming. "I've faced him a lot of times," Penny said, grinning. "He hits anything. Heck, I saw him hit a ball off the ground for a home run when I was in Florida [and Guerrero was with Montreal]." Penny's All-Star experience went very well, all things considered, right up until the time the AL stole the game with a ninth-inning rally. The big right-hander went on to deal for the Dodgers in the second half, but something wasn't quite right. Guys were turning on too many pitches. It got back to him from inside sources -- hitters who used to be teammates, mainly -- that his windup was giving hitters an edge. He'd do something different in his delivery when he was getting ready to throw breaking balls, and word of things like that spread like a Southern California brushfire through the fraternity of batsmen. Determined to eliminate this problem, Penny returned to a delivery he'd used early last season -- bringing his arms all the way back behind his head, rather than stopping at his cap. This seemed to strip hitters of that little edge they'd found, and the big man is back in dominating form. He ranks right there with San Diego's dominant duo of Jake Peavy and Chris Young in the ERA race while moving along at a 20-win pace. He's 10-1 with a 2.39 ERA, trailing Young (2.00) and Peavy (2.19), who gets the start this time. "I had a lot of people tell me in the spring that I'm tipping my pitches the other way," he said, wisely choosing not to identify the traitors to the hitting fraternity. "So I'm back to bringing my hands over my head. I started the season last year doing [that], and went away from it." Penny also shed about five pounds -- not the widely reported 15 pounds, he said -- with a serious spring regimen that including riding his bike five miles from his residence to Dodgertown. "I'm in better shape," Penny said. "And I'm getting a little smarter. I'm not trying to strike everybody out."
He's not throwing as many splitters as in the past, in part to preserve his arm strength. Pitchers have been known to fall in love with that pitch at the expense of their fastball. He's not sure, but he thinks it might have had something to do with a nerve injury in his arm that no longer is an issue.As elder statesman in the Dodgers contingent, Penny is delighted to have his receiver and closer with him for the trip. He compares Martin -- a fans' choice to start -- with the great Ivan Rodriguez, his former batterymate in Florida. "He's basically the same type of player as Pudge," Penny said. "You don't see many catchers like Russell who can hit, run, take walks. And he's a great catcher. "Now he just has to do it for 20 years, like Pudge." Rodriguez, in his 14th All-Star Game, has been one of the masters Martin has studied closely since making this his life's work, along with the Molina brothers, Bengie, Jose and Yadier, and others who have exceptional skills. "I try to be good at every facet of the game of baseball," Martin said. "Baserunning, situational hitting, trying to throw guys out stealing ... I've tried to pick up stuff from other guys, whether it's Pudge, the Molina brothers, or a guy like Juan Pierre, watching him steal bases." Asked if he thought he could hang around as long as Rodriguez, Martin laughed. "I don't know about that," Martin said, "but I'm going to play until my body says no." Martin gets considerable satisfaction out of working with Saito, whose emergence as an elite closer has eased the loss of Eric Gagne, incomparable in his L.A. prime. "Takashi's been throwing for a long time," Martin said. "He's really polished as a pitcher. He has real good command of all his pitches. He can throw the backdoor slider, breaking ball, two different fastballs -- his two-seamer has a little bit of run and sink to it. He mixes all his pitches and keeps hitters off balance. "He's also one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He treats everybody the same. When he doesn't do well -- that doesn't happen very often -- you can tell he's carrying that emotion within him. "I hardly ever, in the middle of an inning, go talk to him. Usually it's 1-2-3, inning over. When I do, two, three times a year, it's something simple, like, 'Let's keep it down.' He's very intense. It's awesome working with him." Saito's 1.47 ERA in 36 games -- he's 1-0 with 23 saves -- is the best of any pitcher on the NL roster. Saito's theme song is "Bad to the Bone," which never ceases to tickle Penny's funny bone. "Sammy's a great guy," Penny said. "I'm so excited to have him here. He's been great for us." Sammy Saito? That comes from locker mates Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. "I'm very honored to be here," Saito said, having entertained a swarm of Asian journalists. As he was departing, he wanted the All-Star sign above his place in the interview room as a memento. He has a lot of new friends in the NL clubhouse who'd no doubt be happy to sign it.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.