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The Virginian-Pilot

Juan Padilla Has Been A Pleasant Surprise For The Tides

By JAMI FRANKENBERRY, The Virginian-Pilot

July 15, 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Virginian-Pilot. All rights reserved.

NORFOLK – Juan Padilla was an afterthought as the New York Mets broke from spring training earlier this year.

"We weren’t looking at him at the beginning of the season to help our major league club," Jim Duquette , the Mets’ senior vice president of baseball operations, said of Padilla, a former 24th -round draft pick who had logged 18 major league games during a seven -year pro career.

Now, Padilla is raising eyebrows, including those of Mets brass, during a dominating season with the Norfolk Tides.

The right handed relief pitcher – sporting orange-tinted glasses and shiny silver and black shoes – has put together perhaps his finest pro season since being drafted in 1998 by

Minnesota. Padilla, 28 , who leads Norfolk with 11 saves to go with a 1.44 ERA, was named an International League All-Star.

"What opens your eyes," Duquette said, "is just how dominant he’s been."

Padilla, a 6 -foot, 200 -pounder, never has blown away batters – he says he tops 90mph on the radar gun only "on a good day" – but he has walked just nine batters over 62u2153 innings this season. He struck out 59 during that stretch and seized the Tides’ job as closer after Heath Bell was called up to New York.

Padilla collected his 100th career minor league save last week.

"He’s going to get his innings because he gets people out," Norfolk manager Ken Oberkfell said. "I have a lot of confidence bringing him into tight situations because he knows how to throw the ball across the plate."

Padilla enjoyed moderate success during his first seven pro seasons in the Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds organizations. He made his major league debut with the Yankees last season and had a 3.97 ERA in six appearances. Claimed off waivers by the Reds late in the season, Padilla was roughed up in 12 major league games. His ERA was 10.67 .

Padilla signed with the Mets in December and during spring training went 2-0 with a 5.40 ERA.

"That wasn’t me," Padilla said. "Now in the season I’m showing what I can do. All I was looking for was an opportunity."

Padilla grew up in Levittown , Puerto Rico, about 15 minutes from the capital, San Juan. He played baseball at an early age, but Juan Alberto Padilla, a draftsman, stressed education to his four children.

While some of Padilla’s friends fell victim to drugs, he was sent to Visual Arts High School in nearby Santurce . There he was schooled in drawing, painting and sculpture. He attended Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College for two years before earning a degree in computer science from Jacksonville University.

"My main goal was to get my education, and then after that my goal was to play professional baseball," said Padilla, who bought a home in Levittown last year.

Padilla this week made his fourth All-Star team, but he is as interested in talking about his life off the field as any accomplishments on it.

He and his wife, Ericka, are proud parents of 1-year-old Nikol. The Padillas, who are renting an apartment in the Greenbrier section of Chesapeake, also sponsor an African girl through Compassion International. The Christian organization "focuses on spiritual, physical, economic and social needs of children" in 20 countries, according to the Compassion Web site.

The Padillas have exchanged letters and pictures and contributed money to a Rwandan girl, now 15 , for the past five years. They were inspired by a late-night infomercial.

"We were just looking at it and (Ericka) said, 'We could do that, help somebody else, since we have all that we need here,’" Padilla said. "There are so many people that need so much in the world. We’re so blessed to have what we have."

Soon, Padilla could be blessed with a major league paycheck.

Duquette said he has "pitched well enough to help us at the major league level; we just haven’t had any major changes to our bullpen."

The Mets would use Padilla as a middle reliever, and he’s eager to prove that his disappointing stint with Cincinnati last season was an aberration.

"I can’t get that into my head too much because I’m doing so good here," Padilla said. "I’m just waiting. Whenever I get the call I’ll be ready."

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