HOF-eligible RHP reflects on his memorable Cy Young season in SD

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SAN DIEGO — Jake Peavy’s foremost recollection from his remarkable 2007 season isn’t the Cy Young Award. It’s not the historic Triple Crown he earned or the utter dominance he exhibited during what’s easily the Padres’ best pitching season of the 21st century.

No, Peavy’s mind instantly goes elsewhere.

“If I’ve got to be completely honest, if I’m going to be blunt and tell the truth, I’ve got to say it: That ’07 season stings,” Peavy said. “I think about those last few games of the season. That’s what my mind goes back to.”

It’s perhaps Peavy’s nature. One of the most fiery competitors on the mound in recent memory, Peavy won World Series with both the Giants and Red Sox. But he can’t quite shake the “what if” that lingers over the Padres’ 2007 season — a season that ended in heartbreaking fashion with three crushing losses over three days.

The last of those, a game started by Peavy, featured one of the sport’s most infamous finishes, in which the Rockies edged the Padres in a tiebreaking Game 163. Whether Matt Holliday actually touched home plate to score the winning run in the 13th inning is still a matter of considerable debate.

It’s now been five years since Peavy’s retirement, and he finds his name on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. The right-hander is a long shot for election but should garner some votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America electorate. He put forth a brilliant 15-year career, in which he notched a 3.63 ERA, won 152 games, made three All-Star teams and won a pair of ERA titles.

“It’s just humbling to even be mentioned in such elite company,” Peavy said. “It’s a bit surreal. I can tell you, it’s something I never thought one ounce about, while playing.”

Amid a career full of accomplishments, Peavy’s 2007 campaign stands as the peak.

“If he’s pitching for the Yankees or the Red Sox, he’s a legend; that season is legendary,” said Josh Bard, Peavy’s primary backstop on the 2007 Padres, now the Dodgers’ bullpen coach. “That was the level of domination.”

No doubt, it was a special season — regardless of the ending. From the outset, Peavy built on the foundation he’d laid across his first five seasons with the Padres. He allowed a total of two runs in his first three starts in 2007, and by mid-May he had a 1.52 ERA.

That included one of the most dominant stretches in franchise history, in which Peavy struck out at least 10 hitters in four consecutive games. On April 25, he outdueled reigning Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, striking out 16 D-backs.

“This dude had special, special command,” Bard recalled. “I was fortunate enough to catch six Cy Young winners, and the thing that stands out about all of them is: They all have great stuff, but they can throw the ball where they want to. Jake was as good at doing that as anybody.”

It’s tricky for Peavy to pinpoint exactly what catapulted him into the echelon of the game’s best pitchers in 2007. He points to the arrival of Greg Maddux, in the twilight of his career, and the lessons Maddux shared. He points to the influence of Chris Young, the Padres’ No. 2 in 2007 and a dominant pitcher in his own right. He cites Bard and manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley.

But there’s one person in particular who Peavy is quick to credit.

“It’s awfully uncomfortable for me to talk about myself in the way of accomplishing these things,” Peavy said. “I had some great influences, and there was none better than my general manager, Kevin Towers. They don’t make ’em like him any more.”

Peavy harkens back to his 2006 season, in which he’d endured a bit of a decline from his lofty standards, in part due to shoulder trouble. Up to that moment, Peavy’s progression to stardom had been linear. This was a setback.

Towers made it known to Peavy that his confidence level hadn’t changed. The late Padres GM declared publicly that his team had “the best pitcher in the NL West” — a quote that resonated with Peavy. Before news of the Maddux signing broke, Towers called Peavy to reassure him. Maddux wouldn’t be taking Peavy’s spot atop the rotation. Maddux was there, in part, to be a resource for the young right-hander.

“I’m forever grateful for the lesson Kevin Towers gave me,” Peavy said. “Even when you get great at your craft and think you’re at the top, there are lessons to be learned. The lesson I think baseball can take from this story is: I thought I had it made. I thought I was doing really good work. Then, one of my bosses said, ‘This guy can show you the keys to a different level of success.'”

Sure enough, Peavy took his game to new heights. He led the National League with 19 wins, a 2.54 ERA and 240 strikeouts, recording the only pitching Triple Crown in Padres history.

With Peavy leading the way, the Padres spent most of the season locked in a tight NL West race. Coming off consecutive division titles in 2005 and ’06, they felt they were ready to take the next step. In the eyes of Peavy and Bard, they had the pitching and defense to get them there.

“We’re a World Series team if we can finish off in Milwaukee,” Bard said. “I really believe that. That’s what makes that game in Colorado so tough.”

Said Peavy: “It really did feel different in 2007.”

And then, it wasn’t. The ending is cruel on Peavy, considering how well he’d pitched all season. With the D-backs and Padres tied atop the division in early September, Peavy asked for the ball on three days’ rest in Arizona. He endured his worst start of the season and his ERA jumped from 2.10 to 2.43.

Still, Peavy responded in a big way, winning his next three decisions with a 1.90 ERA across the rest of September. The Padres needed just one victory in their final two games in Milwaukee to clinch the playoffs, and that’s when everything unraveled.

Tony Gwynn Jr. (of all people) hit a game-tying triple off Trevor Hoffman to send the Brewers to an extra-innings victory in the season’s penultimate game, leaving the Padres with a decision. They could start Peavy on three days’ rest against the middling Brewers (who had nothing to play for). Or they could save Peavy for a potential one-game tiebreaker, where everything would be on the line in Denver.

Peavy wanted the ball in Milwaukee. Of course he did. He wanted to end the Wild Card race then and there. Padres decision-makers had other ideas, preferring to save Peavy for either Game 163 or Game 1 of the Division Series.

Turned out it would be Game 163. Brett Tomko was roughed up by Milwaukee, and Peavy was thrust into a winner-take-all start against the sport’s hottest offense at hitter-friendly Coors Field. The rest is history (a taboo sort of history in San Diego). Peavy grinded through six innings without his best stuff, allowing six runs. The game went to the 13th, where the Padres scored two runs — only for the Rockies to respond with three, putting an abrupt end to Peavy’s incredible season.

Fifteen years later, Peavy is retired, living in his native Mobile, Ala., where’s he’s invested in several ventures in the community, including a restaurant, a charitable foundation and a recording studio.

He’s a two-time World Series champ on the Hall of Fame ballot. He’s content in retirement, loving life as an “ambassador” for the city of Mobile. The sting of the 2007 season is different to Peavy now. But — for a competitor of Peavy’s caliber — it never quite goes away.

“Life goes on, you win awards, and you start to think of it in a good way,” Peavy said of his greatest season on the mound — the greatest Padres pitching season this century. “We accomplished a lot. It was a special group. But [the ending] is what sticks out.”

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