Waldron has 'stabilized rotation' with Darvish, Musgrove on IL

June 15th, 2024

NEW YORK -- The novelty hasn’t worn off for any of the Padres. The feeling of watching Matt Waldron, the club’s 27-year-old knuckleballer, come into his own and confound opposing hitters with his unicorn primary pitch still produces that tingling feeling that arises when you’re witnessing something special unfurl.

And on Friday night against the Mets at Citi Field, the right-hander continued his recent stretch of brilliance that’s making San Diego believe that he, and his rare pitch, have staying power.

Waldron delivered an extremely solid outing against the Mets, tossing his fourth consecutive quality start by allowing two runs over seven innings, giving up just three hits and two walks with two strikeouts. Waldron took the loss in the Padres’ 2-1 defeat -- which snapped the club’s modest three-game win streak -- but his effort kept them in the series opener with a chance to win until their final at-bat.

“He’s really stabilized the rotation,” manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s done his part, he’s grabbing innings and giving us more than a chance to win baseball games. He was really good tonight … but, going seven innings and giving up two runs -- that’s more than a quality start.”

Running counter to his premier pitch’s personality, Waldron has morphed into a beacon of steadiness for an unsettled Padres rotation that’s holding out for Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to return from the injured list. Since May 17 (six starts), he’s got a 1.70 ERA, with a miniscule 0.89 WHIP and an opposing batting average of .191. Over this stretch, Waldron also boasts an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio, racking up 35 strikeouts while handing out eight free passes.

“It’s what I want to do: I want to help these guys out,” Waldron said.

Waldron’s only spell of real trouble came in the third inning, following a walk to second baseman Jeff McNeil and a single to right field off the bat of the left-handed-hitting Brandon Nimmo. With two outs, Waldron attempted to sneak a fastball near the outside part of the plate past J.D. Martinez, who promptly sliced a two-run double near the right-field line -- the eventual deciding blow in the contest.

“It happens, it’s baseball,” Waldron said. “I just got to look back and learn. I missed my spot, that sucks. I mean, I paid for it there.”

Despite the blip, Waldron was effective throughout the evening. While producing just six swings and misses, the righty seemed to have a solid grasp on each of the four pitches he threw in the game. He hurled each one -- knuckleball, sweeper, four-seam and sinker -- 16 or more percent of the time, allowing a meager average exit velocity of 84.3 mph (a decrease from his mark of 87.4 mph entering the night).

While the Padres were scratching to get back into the game, Waldron was forcing lilting pop-ups and weak ground balls, facing the minimum number of batters a few times (with some help from his defense). Being able to play his secondary and tertiary pitches off the knuckleball that danced into the zone -- and even sometimes off his catcher’s glove -- is proving to be a fruitful game plan as the belief in his own ability grows.

“I think it gives him a lot of confidence when I can’t catch it sometimes,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “Because if you can’t catch it, try and imagine hitting it when you don’t necessarily know what’s coming.”

“One-hundred percent, I absolutely feel that,” Waldron said, speaking on if he’s beginning to understand himself more as a pitcher. “There was a point that I didn’t think I would ever feel that.”

The Padres' lone offensive outburst came from center fielder Jackson Merrill, whose herculean efforts in the previous game on Wednesday helped to complete the sweep against Oakland. In the top of the fifth, he pounced on a hanging slider from lefty Sean Manaea, crushing a ball that bounced off the peak of the wall and into the outfield seats. The solo blast was Merrill’s third home run in the past two games, a continuance of his burgeoning role as an impact player as he becomes more comfortable on both sides of the ball.

As he rounded third base, the broadcast camera caught the 21-year-old’s passion overflowing as he screamed a string of motivating epithets that only seemed to embolden his teammates.

“I just wanted to jumpstart the guys,” Merrill said. “I didn’t care if it was a homer, a double or just a single. All I care about is winning, so if we’re not winning, then what are we doing?”