As Padres continue enigmatic play, Matt Waldron turns in his most impressive start

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As Padres continue enigmatic play, Matt Waldron turns in his most impressive start

DENVER — The first knuckleball San Diego Padres right-hander Matt Waldron threw Wednesday missed the glove of catcher Kyle Higashioka and nailed Bill Miller near the bottom of the home-plate umpire’s chest protector. “Ahh, that’s a strike,” a wincing Miller said as he walked off the impact of a 76.4 mph pitch.

“It was nasty,” Higashioka said later. “It took a hard right turn. I think his knuckleball usually goes left. And that one went right. I completely whiffed it.

“Not a good way for me to start the game with catcher-umpire relations, you know?”

In another sense, it was a promising start — and a memorable one at that. It was the first knuckleball thrown at Coors Field by a major-league pitcher since Sept. 16, 2008, when then-Padres reliever Charlie Haeger threw 22 of them for a team managed by current Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black. (In the 13 years since, the likes of Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey and Steven Wright had never taken the mound in this mile-high ballpark.) And it was the beginning of a largely befuddling evening for the home club.

Rockies leadoff man Charlie Blackmon swung under Waldron’s next pitch, another knuckleball, for strike three. Waldron retired the next nine batters, too — throwing at least one knuckleball to eight of them — before he issued consecutive walks and surrendered an infield hit in the bottom of the fourth. He escaped the jam, and any damage, by inducing a groundout with his 18th knuckleball of the game.

Had he unwittingly demonstrated a potential key to solving the unique challenge of succeeding on the mound in this ballpark? Will the Rockies, after witnessing Waldron’s relative dominance, suddenly start teaching their pitching prospects the singular art of the knuckleball?

“I’ll tell you, it still is hard (to throw a knuckleball),” Waldron said after matching a career high with six innings of work in a 5-2 win for the Padres. “The game just goes a certain way. So if I’m a part of that, I’ll take it.”

The context Wednesday was important. The Padres (14-13), after coughing up a loss the night before, did what they should do against an awful Rockies team (6-19). Yet the visitors and a second-year big leaguer still could be encouraged. Waldron, 27, has pitched to a 7.79 ERA amid the elevation of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League — and, through 13 appearances with the Padres, a 4.21 ERA. He was once known as a throw-in in the 2020 trade that brought prominent starter Mike Clevinger to San Diego.

Clevinger never approached lofty expectations, compiling a 4.12 ERA with the Padres around a year lost to Tommy John surgery. Waldron, who began experimenting with a knuckleball in 2021 and reached the majors in June, opened this season as the team’s No. 5 starter. With a 3.96 ERA through five outings, he has since performed as well as could be expected.

“He’s established himself as a starter,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s shown the ability to pitch deep in games and give teams a chance. Regardless of repertoire, if you’re going to start, that’s going to be a big part of the prerequisite for being able to do that … and he just happens to have a knuckleball that’s part of his arsenal. That’s the biggest thing for me. Whatever your pitches are, they are. However you get there, you get there. But being able to get there and get a solid six innings and buy your team a chance to win baseball games is ultimately the prerequisite, and he’s been able to do that.”

Waldron threw 30 knuckleballs among 91 total pitches in his Coors Field debut. He received four runs of first-inning support and got 15 swings-and-misses by himself, another career high. Six came against his knuckleball, a pitch he noted is less affected at high altitude than his other offerings. He had resolved before the game to be more aggressive in the strike zone than in his previous start, when he surrendered five runs against the Toronto Blue Jays and failed to get through five innings.

“Getting ahead was the name of my game today,” said Waldron, who surrendered the lone run against him on a Ryan McMahon home run in the sixth. “Higgy and I executed well, and the offense did what they do, and it’s awesome. It was a fun one.”

It might have been easy to forget that, just two months ago, Higashioka had never caught a knuckleballer in a game. Then, he caught Waldron in a Feb. 23 Cactus League exhibition.

How much more comfortable is the task now?

“Uh, still pretty uncomfortable,” Higashioka said with a smile. “If I could figure out how it’s gonna move every time, I would get comfortable. But it’s different every time. I’ll probably be uncomfortable with it my whole season.”

It isn’t just Higashioka. The Padres have started their backup catcher in each of Waldron’s past four games, preferring the pairing to one with primary catcher Luis Campusano. Campusano is the better hitter, Higashioka the superior receiver. “He’s got really soft hands,” Shildt said.

And, to date, Waldron hasn’t been alone in terms of unpredictability. The Padres lately have appeared as enigmatic as their record indicates. Are they the offense that piled up big innings in rousing comeback victories, or the depth-challenged unit that averaged fewer than three runs over the past week? Are they the defense that ranks among the league leaders in outs above average, or the error-prone collection that has surrendered the second-most unearned runs in the majors?

Late Tuesday, after the Rockies hit a grand slam soon after a critical defensive miscue, Shildt referenced a seemingly unsustainable statistic: Of the 17 errors the Padres had tallied this season, 12 led to at least one run.

“Our defense has mostly been really good, has been in the right position a lot,” Shildt said. “We’re in that situation where it seems like the moment we make a miscue, some damage takes place. And that’s not the norm, but it has taken place. Like I’ve said, they’re men, not machines. But it happens.”

Wednesday, it did not happen, and this was a good thing. The Padres played error-free baseball and largely executed like a well-oiled machine, at least when it mattered. The offense scored four times before Waldron took the mound. Shortstop Ha-Seong Kim prevented the infield hit in the bottom of the fourth from turning into a run-scoring single. A bullpen that has gone from shaky to shutdown held the Rockies to one hit, an Elias Díaz solo homer, over the final three innings.

There likely will be more variance ahead, in part because the Padres are missing their Opening Day starter and their franchise third baseman. Sidelined by a neck injury, Yu Darvish threw a bullpen session in San Diego on Wednesday but remains at least six days from returning. Manny Machado, meanwhile, will not join the team for Thursday’s day game after using up his three-day allotment on the paternity list; the Padres will play the series finale a man short.

Wednesday night, at least, they did not need him. Amid elevation and what has been an up-and-down season for his team, Waldron successfully applied the lessons he had learned in the Pacific Coast League, including by throwing only 11 sinkers. Four of them, he estimated, demonstrated cutting action and “just did some weird things.”

And in what became arguably his most impressive big-league start yet, he found consistency in the erratic movement of his knuckleball.

“I just feel like it stayed the same,” Waldron said.

(Photo: Dustin Bradford / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)