Padres sing praises of new pitching ace

Part of the problem with writing sports is that there is always a tendency to take even mediocre players and blow their abilities all out of proportion to reality.

Often we poor typewriter jockeys are guilty of leaving a whole set of false values right where the historians can find them. Sometimes, just so our stuff won't seem tepid, we steal adjectives from the Hall of Fame as casually as housewives go next door to borrow a cup of sugar.

So when I tell you that left-hander Dave Dravecky of the San Diego Padres is pitching better than former National League Cy Young Award-winners Steve Carlton and Fernando Valenzuela, don't take too big a bite. Think about it. Dravecky couldn't possibly have a fastball as good as Carlton's or breaking stuff that tangos with the same rhythm as Valenzuela's.

The fact that Dravecky, in only his second year in the majors, has become the first pitcher this season to win 12 games, is merely a pleasant coincidence. Right? Of course, and his super-low earned-run average is just so much pizazz.

How good is Dravecky, whose two scoreless innings represented the best performance by any National League pitcher in last week's 13-3 All-Star Game loss?

''Well, he's pretty good,'' manager Dick Williams told me when the Padres were in Los Angeles. ''Take any young pitcher, and if the talent is there, he's going to improve from year to year. But Dave has something most kids don't have, and that's the ability to sense when he's not giving his best. He's the kind who will stop right in the middle of an inning and give himself a mental kick if he needs it.

''I think the biggest improvement in Dave this year is the way he's learned to change speeds on all of his pitches,'' Williams continued. ''The hitters aren't picking up what he's throwing until the last second, and then it's too late. And his control has been remarkable. In fact, I've seen him work a couple of games when he didn't walk a batter.''

Williams also notes that Dravecky is a legitimate power pitcher - not in the same sense that Nolan Ryan is, perhaps, but a hard enough thrower so that most hitters don't dig in against him.

Given all this, it's hard to imagine that a little over a year ago the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Dave to the Padres for an outfielder who is no longer on their roster.

Asked to comment on his improvement, Dravecky replied: ''Part of it happened because Williams gave me the chance to pitch on a regular basis, which is bound to help anyone. Since I knew ahead of time when I'd be starting, I was able to study the hitters on opposing teams and get ready for them. Even though I didn't win many games last year [five with a 2.57 ERA], I gained a lot of experience that did wonders for my confidence.

''I didn't always have control of my best pitches last season. It wasn't that I couldn't get my stuff to break. The problem was getting it to break in the strike zone. So far this year I've been able to throw all my pitches for strikes , and basically that is what has made me a winner.''

Pitching coach Norm Sherry is impressed with the poise Dravecky shows on days when he's not in top form.

''No pitcher is going to have his best stuff every time out,'' Norm said. ''Sometimes he has to win with his head, and Dave can do that, too.''

Technically, because Dave has such a smooth delivery, Sherry has been able to leave his mechanics alone. Where Norm has helped is in teaching him different ways to set up a hitter; how to hold runners close to first base; and when to lay off the fastball in 3-2 situations and surprise the hitter with a breaking ball.

Sherry calls Dravecky a ''gamer'' - that is, someone who rises to the occasion when the chips are down.

''The other day he had the Houston Astros shut out for nine innings, but we couldn't get him any runs,'' Norm recalled. ''Finally, we got on the scoreboard in the 11th and got him his victory. But a lot of young pitchers probably would have lost their concentration somewhere along the way in a situation like that.''

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