Technically, Joey Lucchesi has the No. 4 spot in the Padres’ rotation right now. But through two of Lucchesi’s starts this season, this much is already clear: It’s not a traditional rotation spot, and he’s not a traditional starting pitcher.
Before the season began, the Padres were hesitant to divulge their pitching plans, in an effort to conceal their strategy. But their plan for the back end of the rotation has crystallized over the past week, and it got a bit more clarity in Saturday’s 6-1 Rockies victory at Coors Field.
For the second consecutive outing, Lucchesi received a quick hook from manager Jayce Tingler, this time after just 1 2/3 innings and 51 pitches. Unlike his first start this season, Lucchesi’s performance prompted his removal on Saturday. He didn’t allow much hard contact, but he allowed six hits and three runs before he was lifted for Cal Quantrill.
“He got to two strikes all right,” Tingler said. “I thought he left the ball up. In that, he really wasn’t getting hit hard, but the pitches were up, and they were able to stay on plane with it and get some two-strike hits. … Obviously, we were hoping he could really go a little bit longer tonight.”
Still, there’s an obvious trend developing in Lucchesi’s rotation spot. Both times, the righty Quantrill has replaced the lefty Lucchesi during Lucchesi’s second trip through the opposing lineup. Both times, Quantrill’s arrival came when Lucchesi was staring down an important at-bat against a righty hitter who’d had success against him.
“It’s totally different for me because I obviously want to go as long as I can, as hard as I can,” said Lucchesi, of his shortened starts. “But whatever the team needs, I’ll do it.”
Quantrill followed Lucchesi with 4 1/3 innings of three-run ball on Saturday. The Padres’ bats, after mounting a late charge on Friday night, had none of the same magic the following evening. Trent Grisham launched a solo homer in the eighth, but that was all the offense they would get. Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland became the first opposing pitcher to complete six innings against San Diego this season.
“This has been the first game where we got beat in every facet,” Tingler said. “From starting pitching, hitting, defense -- everything. We got beat in a lot of departments.”
Since the Padres’ final exhibition of the preseason in Anaheim, the fourth spot in the rotation has been a shared assignment between Lucchesi and Quantrill. On Saturday, Quantrill was more effective than Lucchesi. But he wasn’t at his best, either. Matt Kemp and Trevor Story both took him deep.
It’s worth wondering how long Tingler will continue to employ this type of tandem. It might not even last through the week. The Padres have their first off-day of the season slated for Thursday, and they could easily skip Lucchesi’s turn in order to turn things over to Chris Paddack and the top of the rotation more quickly.
After the game, Tingler hinted at the obvious -- that Lucchesi needs to improve in order to maintain his place in the rotation.
“We’ve got to be a little bit better,” Tingler said. “We can’t be not able to get through the second. So we’ll talk about it as a staff, and figure out over the next couple days -- what are the plans going forward? Both guys are going to throw innings for us. We’ve just got to that find that combination of what’s going to work that day to give us the best chance to win.”
Those options stretch well beyond Lucchesi and Quantrill. If Lucchesi continues to struggle, it might necessitate a callup for one of the team’s top pitching prospects -- perhaps MacKenzie Gore, Luis Patiño or Adrian Morejon. Patiño in particular has stood out at the team’s alternate training site.
Or the Padres could get creative. Tingler has thrown around the possibility of using an opener for an inning or two. He might also take that a step further and use a planned bullpen day.
“I think everything’s going to be on the table going forward; all those options,” Tingler said, echoing one of his themes for baseball in 2020.
Everything is on the table.