LOS ANGELES -- Think trying to get the final three outs in the ninth inning are hard? Then just try being the guy who gets the ball -- and, of course, the lead -- to the closer, the guy who bears the full brunt of when things go wrong yet often goes unnoticed in victory. Take it from someone who has done the job, like Padres closer Heath Bell, and he will tell you being an eighth-inning specialist isn't easy by any means. "Trevor used to say all the time that the seventh and eighth innings are really the hardest innings," Bell said, remembering the words of his mentor, the pitcher he set up for two seasons, all-time Major League saves leader Trevor Hoffman.
"Teams know they have to score," Bell said. "In the ninth inning, you're going to have the closer out there. You want to score before you face that guy. Those ... for me, are the defining innings where you can shut the door." Bell did a good job of that on Sunday, working a scoreless inning to help the Padres to a 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers before a crowd of 47,528 as well as a nationally televised audience on ESPN2. But instead of reveling in his 35th save, or the Padres' series victory over the Dodgers, a team sitting on top of the National League West, Bell, who set up Hoffman in 2007-08, wanted to make sure rookie Luke Gregerson got his due for what he pulled off on a warm Sunday night. Gregerson, the late addition to Spring Training who was a tough call for Padres manager Bud Black on the Opening Day roster, got a big out in the seventh inning and then blew through the side in the eighth with three strikeouts. "We've got some young guys coming in and defining their roles," Bell said, as he tore through a plate of ribs. "We're young, and we've got some confidence." The outing by Gregerson allowed starting pitcher Tim Stauffer's strong outing to hold up, though the Padres (61-77), who once led by three, certainly tiptoed through several unsteady moments before getting the ball in the hands of Bell. Stauffer essentially coasted into the seventh inning on Sunday, having allowed one run on six hits. To that point, he had gotten 10 outs on ground balls and had walked one and very rarely was "stressed" as Black often calls precarious situations. "I was able to limit the damage with one run ... that was pretty good, I thought," Stauffer said. "I thought I was throwing aggressively and feeling pretty much in control." He quickly got Orlando Hudson to tap a ball back to the mound and then got pinch-hitter Mark Loretta to ground a ball toward Everth Cabrera at shortstop. Cabrera, running in on the ball, bobbled it, allowing Loretta to reach base. The error, Cabrera's fourth in two games, would prove costly when Rafael Furcal singled to right field. Stauffer then got Juan Pierre on a lazy fly ball to center field. That's when Black went to his bullpen for left-hander Joe Thatcher to face lefty Andre Ethier. Ethier, who is hitting 139 points lower against left-handed pitchers, jumped on a first-pitch fastball, sending it down the right-field line to score two runs to make it 4-3. After intentionally walking Manny Ramirez, Black brought in Gregerson. Gregerson got out of the inning by getting pinch-hitter Matt Kemp to fly out to center and then struck out Ronnie Belliard, Russell Martin and Orlando Hudson in the eighth inning on 15 pitches, 12 of which were wipeout sliders. "My slider has always been my best pitch," said Gregerson, who has a 3.05 ERA in 58 games, the second most on the team. "Most of the time, I can throw it for a strike better than any other pitch." Black, who has watched Gregerson become a force as a rookie, especially on the road, where he has a 0.75 ERA with 43 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings, considered the work the 25-year-old did late in the game to be on par with what he's done this season. "Gregerson got a critical out with Kemp in the seventh," Black said. "For a rookie, he's come in to be an integral part of our late innings." The Padres backed Stauffer (4-6) with three runs in the first three innings off Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda (5-6), as Kevin Kouzmanoff drove in the first three runs, giving him a team-leading 83 RBIs, one off his career-high from last season. Not to be outdone, Adrian Gonzalez hit an opposite-field home run off Kuroda in the fifth inning, his 35th of the season. Stauffer got 11 ground-ball outs, walked one and struck out three. After five consecutive starts where he lasted five innings, he's gone 6 2/3 innings in his last two starts. "Stauffer has been pretty steady since he joined the rotation," Black said. "Tonight, I thought he and [catcher Henry Blanco] worked well. He used all four pitches and pitched to both sides of the plate."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.