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Yates, Padres a 'match made in heaven'

Reliever enjoying dominance on mound after Friars encourage use of splitter
MLB.com @AJCassavell

PITTSBURGH -- Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A mediocre reliever was cast aside by his former club one April. The Padres claimed that reliever off waivers, helped him develop a dominant new pitch and now he's among the best late-inning weapons in the sport.

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PITTSBURGH -- Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A mediocre reliever was cast aside by his former club one April. The Padres claimed that reliever off waivers, helped him develop a dominant new pitch and now he's among the best late-inning weapons in the sport.

View Full Game Coverage

San Diego did it with Brad Hand and his slider in 2016. That story has been rehearsed ad nauseam. Perhaps it's time to give Kirby Yates -- and his devastating split-finger fastball -- some of the same recognition.

Since his arrival, Yates is striking out hitters at an unprecedented clip. With 107 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings, Yates is the only pitcher in franchise history to average more than 1 1/2 strikeouts per inning.

Video: LAD@SD: Yates K's Taylor to strike out the side

"A match made in heaven," Yates said of being claimed by the Padres in April 2017. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me for my career. I got to a place where I had people that could help me, and they did, and got me going in the right direction."

Yates had only recently developed his splitter in 2017, using it in game action for the first time that Spring Training. The Angels told Yates to focus on his slider as a secondary pitch, but he was having very little success with it.

"The Angels didn't want me to get away from the slider," Yates said. "I wasn't necessarily going to get away from the slider, but I was trying to add a third pitch. When I got here, it was, 'We like your split, we want you to throw it more.'"

Throw it, he has. Yates is using his splitter 32 percent of the time this season, and opposing hitters have whiffed at 28 percent of them. They're 2-for-20 with two singles and 10 strikeouts on at-bats that end with a splitter.

"I had to get comfortable with it," Yates said. "But the more I threw it, the better it got."

Like they did with Hand and his slider, the Padres encouraged Yates' splitter experiment from the start.

Video: SD@PIT: Hand notches 13th save, seals Padres' win

"One thing I think our atmosphere breeds is, 'Hey, come be yourself,'" bullpen coach Doug Bochtler said. "We're going to give you as much help as we can. But we want you to be yourself.

"The next thing you know the guy comes in, is freed up and starts having some success. Then they run with it. That's what I've seen with those two guys. It hasn't been a wholesale change."

Yates has cemented himself as the Padres' primary set-up man for Hand. He's allowed one run in 15 innings this season, and he's quick to credit his splitter -- along with the staff that allowed him to embrace it.

"It's different to be where I am now, compared to where I was two or three years ago," Yates said. "I was a mop-up guy, I was a guy just trying to get innings. I've been trying to get a significant role my whole career. Now I have one, and I'm comfortable with it, and it makes it easier to pitch."

Injury updates
• Right-hander Colin Rea departed extended spring training and is slated to begin a rehab stint at Double-A San Antonio in the coming days. He'll require an extended progression back to full health after missing the 2017 season due to Tommy John surgery. Rea was nearing a return during Spring Training, but he suffered a setback in the form of a right lat strain early in camp.

Joey Lucchesi (right hip strain) played catch from 90 feet on Saturday morning, but Padres manager Andy Green indicated the club might be cautious with the left-hander in his return. After Monday, the Padres don't need a fifth starter until May 29, though Lucchesi is eligible to come off the DL on Friday.

"Coming back for his next start might be a little bit on the tight side right now," Green said. "It might take him a little bit longer, but overall he's fine and moving forward."

Manuel Margot took swings in the batting cage on Saturday, and his wrist soreness has mostly subsided, Green said. The Padres' center fielder was out of the lineup for the second consecutive game, but Green noted Margot is available off the bench.

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.

San Diego Padres, Kirby Yates