By Jake Rill
PHOENIX — Joe Musgrove’s rare tough stretch in early September made him look less like the dominant right-hander who mostly cruised through much of the season. But those struggles may have actually made him — better?
“The work that I had to put in with other pitches throughout the course of that stretch, where it felt like I was really searching for something, it kind of sharpened them up a little bit,” Musgrove said. “So now I’m able to get back to the four-seam/cutter/slider and breaking balls, and mix in the changeup a little bit.”
That even-more-impressive arsenal — grouped with a more consistent delivery and a budding relationship with young catcher Luis Campusano — got Musgrove back on track on Saturday night.
Musgrove tossed six scoreless innings to power the Padres to a 2-0 win over the D-backs at Chase Field, as the Friars remained 1 1/2 games up in the race for the third NL Wild Card over the Brewers, who again beat the Yankees. San Diego picked up a game on Philadelphia for the second Wild Card and is only a half-game back.
It was exactly the type of get-right outing the Padres were seeking from Musgrove, who allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 9 2/3 innings over his first two starts of the month. This time out, he gave up only four hits while striking out eight and walking none.
“We’ve seen a bunch of games this year like that,” manager Bob Melvin said. “But after getting through a tough stretch, to be able to give us six like he did, didn’t walk anybody, had great command of all his pitches today — bottom of the zone, top of the zone. It’s good to see him come back and win a huge game like it was today.”
Musgrove’s offerings were diverse — 31 cutters, 23 sliders, 19 four-seam fastballs, 11 changeups, nine curveballs and two sinkers. And they were all working.
“He mixed it up pretty well today, and he had pretty good command of all of them,” Arizona leadoff hitter Josh Rojas said.
During the week, Musgrove developed his game plan while working to fine-tune his mechanics. He wanted to use his changeup and four-seamer more. He researched what may work better against the D-backs, who tagged Musgrove for five runs (four earned) on nine hits in 4 1/3 innings on Sept. 6 at Petco Park.
Musgrove also kept tweaking his delivery, trying to make it more repeatable so that he could get into a better rhythm on the mound.
“A lot of work put in this week,” Musgrove said. “Maybe too much work. I was almost a little too sore today than I’d like to be.”
Yet, when Musgrove needed to find a little extra in his final inning — the only time Arizona had a runner past second base — he did just that.
Daulton Varsho hit a one-out double in the sixth, then moved to third on a Jake McCarthy flyout. But Musgrove bore down after Christian Walker worked the count full, retiring the slugger on a tapper hit back to the mound on his 95th and final pitch of the night.
“He’s out there competing his [butt] off and giving us a chance to win,” Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth said. “Tonight, it seemed like he was cruising pretty good. And then they got some baserunners there, but he worked around them pretty well”
This was the second time that Musgrove was paired with Campusano, a 23-year-old with only 23 games of big league experience. On Aug. 31, he was behind the plate when Musgrove allowed three runs and struck out 11 over 6 2/3 innings in a win over the Giants.
Musgrove kept Campusano in the loop while preparing for Saturday’s start, and the two have been in frequent communication when they know they’ll be working together.
“He makes it easy. He tells me, ‘Whatever you see, go for it,’” said Campusano, who hit a home run, the second of his MLB career, in a two-run fourth. “He’s pretty much letting me call my game, and it’s working.”
Everything was clicking for Musgrove again. It was a welcome sight for the Padres, as they’ll likely need him to help push them into the postseason — and then make a deep run once they get there.
“I’m not going to get too comfortable and say that I’ve got it figured out and it’s going to stay here,” Musgrove said. “But you go out and throw 100 pitches at max effort, and the delivery’s efficient, it’s easy to maintain that feel when your body kind of knows that that’s what it wants to do. …
“Being able to go out and have an efficient day movement-wise in an actual game when the intensity’s high and I’m using all my pitches, that’s going to pay off.”