By TRIBUNE SPORTS STAFF
SAN DIEGO —
SAN DIEGO — Kokomo native Joe Thatcher’s road to his seventh season pitching for the San Diego Padres wasn’t as ideal as he would have liked.
But, things seemed to have worked themselves out quite nicely for the left-handed reliever.
After having shoulder and knee surgeries over the course of the past two seasons, Thatcher was given a clean bill of health before the start of spring training, making the Padres’ spring training opening roster for the first time since 2008.
He even appeared in San Diego’s regular-season opening-day contest with the New York Mets.
“Everything feels healthy now,” Thatcher told MLB.com during spring training. “The knee feels good. I wasn’t able to run until two or so weeks before spring training, so I had to get caught up.”
Thatcher, a product of Kokomo High School, pitched with pain in his throwing shoulder in 2010 and 2011 before going under the knife to repair labrum damage.
He returned from that just fine in 2012 and put together a strong season. In 55 appearances he finished with a 1-4 record and a save in 33 1/3 innings of work. In that time, he amassed a 3.41 ERA, giving up 13 runs — 12 earned —on 30 hits and 14 walks. He fanned 39 and finished with a 1.39 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).
He pitched the latter part of the season with knee pain, and in October he went under the knife once again, this time for an arthroscopic procedure to repair tendon damage in the right knee.
He was able to give it a go in spring training, but was limited in his work, appearing in just eight of San Diego’s 36 games (the team went 16-20), posting a 1-0 record in 6 2/3 innings of work. In that span, he allowed four runs — two earned — on nine hits and three walks. He finished the spring with a 2.70 ERA, five strikeouts and a 1.80 WHIP.
“Arm-wise, for what I do, I don’t need to build up the big pitch count,” said Thatcher, who’s been used as a situational lefty for the bulk of his career. “Toward the end of the spring, [I started] throwing more and getting used to being available every day.”
Since 2009, the 31-year-old Thatcher holds a 2.66 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and has averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. His 190 appearances in that same span is the third most by a Padre pitcher.
“He’s made a lot of strides in a number of areas. One thing he’s been able to do, especially the last few years, is perform pretty well against left and right hitters, especially left,” San Diego manager Bud Black told MLB.com this spring. “We’ve seen the more consistent strike. When he’s needed to throw a strike, he has. He’s done pretty well against some of the best left-handed hitters in the league the last few years.”
The organization rewarded him for his labor, as the two sides avoided arbitration, agreeing to a one-year, $1.35 million contract in January. It was Thatcher’s second year being eligible for arbitration. Among the current members of the Padres’ roster, he has the third longest tenure behind third baseman Chase Headley and pitcher Tim Stauffer.
“I love playing for [Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley],” Thatcher said. “I love it here. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
In Monday’s regular season opener, Thatcher made an appearance, inducing a groundout on the only pitch he threw to close out the eighth inning of an 11-2 loss to the Mets in New York.
The Padres are looking to improve upon last season’s disappointing finish at 76-86, 18 games out of first place behind eventual World Series champion San Francisco, which won the National League West division with a 94-68 record before sweeping Detroit in the World Series.