Baseball - Fri, Sep. 11, 2009
By Chris JenkinsUnion-Tribune Staff Writer

8:58 p.m. September 10, 2009

SAN DIEGO - By now, the label's about worn off completely.

You pitch in 60 major league games over the course of five months, whiff some of the game's very best hitters more than once and firmly establish yourself in a vital role, you almost have to remind yourself and others that you haven't done this before 2009. That you're still only in your first go-round.

Heck, on the Padres, who isn't?

"It's been hard to feel like a rookie," said relief pitcher Luke Gregerson, a 25-year-old right-hander. "Initially, I did feel like one. But we've had so many guys coming in, guys about the same age in pretty much the same situation as me, just coming out of the minors."

However, the fact that Gregerson is only in his first campaign above Double-A ball makes his overall performance this season even more impressive. Among first-year relievers with at least 60 innings pitched, Gregerson is first in the majors with his 23 holds, best by far in the National League with 76 strikeouts and second-best with an earned-run average that just got back under 3.00 with a strong road trip.

Repeat, road trip.

While recovering nicely from three blown saves in the first month of his big league career and a stint on the 15-day disabled list, Gregerson has withstood the constant notation that he's been so much better at Petco Park than anywhere else. Not that that's good news to the Colorado Rockies, who open a weekend series downtown Friday night.

Things lately have begun to even out, but still, opponents are batting .145 against Gregerson in San Diego and .308 in Padres road games. That's based on exactly 117 at-bats over 30 games both home and away.

"Coincidence," said Gregerson. "I really don't think it has anything to do with the road and I really don't think it has anything to do with Petco, because I'm no more nervous about pitching anywhere."

All the more reason why Gregerson's two most recent outings were especially remarkable. For one thing, he's only recently climbed into the eighth-inning role vacated by Mike Adams, who was nearly untouchable over two months before injuring his shoulder. For another, Gregerson flat shut down the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park.

Taking over Tuesday night with two outs in the seventh inning of a tie game, Gregerson stranded two Giants runners with the fly ball he induced from Bengie Molina, and his total of three pitches thrown resulted in Gregerson's first major league win.

For predicaments precisely like the one Gregerson stepped into Wednesday, top relievers were called "firemen," a term that vanished into the vernacular. Summoned in the eighth with Giants on first and second, no outs and a two-run lead to protect, Gregerson put away three straight batters without either runner advancing.

"I've realized that at this level, you take the good with the bad, the bad with the good," said Gregerson, who has not given up a run in his last 13 outings (12 innings). "Bad things happen. But so do good things."

Perhaps the best thing to happen to Gregerson was the Padres' trade of embattled shortstop Khalil Greene to St. Louis, the organization that drafted Gregerson, a product of the Chicago area, out of St. Xavier University in 2006. Gregerson turned out to be the swap's "player to be named later," and reported to his first Padres camp with the notion that he might begin 2009 in Triple-A.

"I knew that the (Padres organization) needed pitching," said Gregerson. "I thought it was a good thing right away, because (the Cardinals) are a team dominated by veteran players and I was coming to a team in a rebuilding phase, trying to re-establish things and doing a very good job of it. But I didn't know I'd be in this position."

Given the Padres' history, it's not a position usually left to a rookie. The back end of the bullpen has almost become a San Diego trademark, perpetuated by the likes of Scott Linebrink, Aki Otsuka, Cla Meredith, Bell, now Adams and Gregerson.

For his part, Gregerson leads the Padres staff with 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, followed by Adams (10.43), lefty Joe Thatcher (10.55) and Bell (9.92). For context, Jake Peavy was at 10.14 before being traded.

"As a young guy coming up, you think about the guys like Manny Ramirez, Ryan Howard, David Wright," said Gregerson. "But I've struck them all out, most of them twice. Those guys hit a homer about every other day, but now I know I can pitch here, that I can strike these guys out.

"On the mound, you don't even think of that stuff. It's not, 'Oh my god, look who I'm facing!' But afterwards, you look back and go, 'Yeah, that was cool. That was awesome.' "