SAN DIEGO -- Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley certainly had his work cut out for him in the first half of the season. Injuries reduced his projected rotation down to two of its initial five members, and 11 different hurlers came and went as the organization tried to fill the vacant spots.
And while an excuse-free Balsley would be loathe to accept anything less than top-notch performance, the fact remains that for all that first-half turmoil, the Padres' pitching has, well, hung in there.
San Diego starters have given up the seventh-fewest hits in the Majors this year (487), while throwing the 10th-most innings (511 2/3). They're in the top half of the league in earned runs allowed (12th with 229) and have a combined ERA of 4.03 - a mere seven-hundredths of a run out of the Majors' top 10. That success certainly takes its roots partially in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, but it is also, in large part, thanks to Balsley, who has led the Padres to the Majors' lowest combined ERA since his first full season in 2004.
"Continuity is so important," said Padres manager Bud Black. "Darren's been able to continue to put game plans together and get to know guys quickly even as we've had to shuffle the deck. ... He's done a great job."
When the Padres have been forced to turn to veterans, Balsley has helped them find remnants of prior glory. Take Kip Wells, who hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 2009 and has a 2.50 ERA in three starts so far, or Jason Marquis, who was a meager 2-4 with an 8.47 ERA with the Twins this year before striking out 44 in just 43 2/3 innings for the Padres.
"[Balsley] has really helped me get my breaking ball back. He's helped me immensely with game planning," Marquis said. "I wish I had run into him sooner in my career."
"You answer all the questions they have and also make suggestions," Balsley said of working with more experienced players. "Yes, [these veterans] have been around, but there's always room for improvement."
Among those veterans improving under Balsley's tutelage is Eric Stults, who was 8-10 in parts of five big league seasons and let go by the White Sox earlier this year. He turned in a 3.33 ERA in 24 innings before landing on the Padres' magnetic DL with a strained lat on June 6. He pitched a rehab assignment Thursday in Triple-A Tuscon and is, according to Black, likely to be first in what the team hopes will be a parade of returning arms.
Another hopeful for a second-half return is Tim Stauffer, who was scheduled to be the Padres' Opening Day starter before succumbing to a strained right elbow. Black said Thursday he expects Stauffer to begin bullpen sessions soon as the next step in his throwing program.
The return of Stauffer would take the pressure off youngsters like Anthony Bass and Andrew Cashner, whose progress is also a cause for second-half optimism. Black said Thursday both are at least three weeks away from Major League action after DL stints for shoulder and lat problems, respectively. Both experienced success as they made the transition from reliever to starter under Balsley's watchful eye, as Bass struck out 72 in 80 innings of work prior to his DL stint, and Cashner carried a no-hitter into the seventh in his first 2012 start in the rotation.
Then there's Clayton Richard and Edinson Volquez, who have both made every one of their starts this season, though their reliability hasn't necessarily meant less work for Balsley. Whether keeping an eye on Richard's oft-erratic arm slot or correcting momentary lapses in Volquez's sometimes-fragile mechanics, Balsley gets no day off when his workhorses take the hill.
So while Balsley should be proud of the work he and his starters did under trying first-half circumstances, he expects his rotation to do much more than just get by in the second half.
"We have a good mix of youth and veterans, and I don't want our guys to just give us good innings, I want them to go out there and win ballgames," Balsley said. "A positive thing we saw at the end of the first half was that we showed we can do that. ... I believe we can be a little bit better in the second half than we might look on paper. These guys can pitch."
In other injury news, Padres starter Joe Wieland is scheduled for another evaluation on his strained right elbow this week. Wieland was placed on the disabled list retroactive to May 7 and has had two throwing programs interrupted by recurring symptoms so far.