LOS ANGELES -- From depths of rejection to heights of acceptance, Dodgers pitcher Vicente Padilla is on the verge of turning a forgettable year into one to remember.
The one-time Rangers castoff will start the biggest game of his career on Saturday, when he takes the hill for Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals in St. Louis with his team up 2-0 in the best-of-five series.
"This is a second life that I have been given, and I'm grateful for it," Padilla said. "I'm going to do my best [Saturday]. We'll hope for a little luck and see what happens."
Nobody could have predicted what has happened to him so far this season.
The right-handed pitcher was released by Texas in early August because the club felt he no longer fit in. The Dodgers picked him up 10 days later for the prorated portion of the minimum salary, about $100,000.
The bargain shopping paid dividends. Padilla went 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in eight games (seven starts) with the Dodgers after signing with the club Aug. 19.
"He's pitched well for us, so you never know what's going to happen, you never know who you're going to need or when you're going to need him," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "So part of our plan all year long is to have enough to get us through whatever we needed. And if it meant having Padilla, it was adding Padilla."
Padilla's arrival in Los Angeles was preceded by his reputation. He's enigmatic, they said, and a bad teammate to boot. Some of his former Rangers teammates bad-mouthed him on his way out the door, and others wondered how he would adjust to the Dodgers' clubhouse.
"The way a person treats me is how I understand who a person is," Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez said. "I can't talk about what happened with Vicente in Texas or anywhere else because I wasn't there. He's treated me with respect and he's treated others here with respect. What else do you want? Who am I to judge another person? Let him be who he is. I have no problem with him."
By all accounts, Padilla has fit in fine. Part of the reason for the smooth transition, Padilla said, is because the team is loaded with veterans and he's made fast friends with the Latin players in the clubhouse. He lockers in a corner of the clubhouse and is comfortable in his solitude, which sometimes makes others uncomfortable.
He speaks to Spanish media when he's approached and he speaks "baseball-related English," which is sometimes confused as fluent English, to non-Spanish-speaking reporters. Padilla often uses a translator for fear of having his words misconstrued or embarrassing himself with poor English.
Some argue Padilla is simply on his best behavior because he is a free agent at the end of the season. Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf, Padilla's teammate in Philadelphia, said his old friend just needed a fresh start.
"When he came over here, I told some of the people here in L.A. that I thought he was going to be a big addition for us," Wolf said. "I think a change of scenery was going to be big for him. I think the way our team is, I think we're very laid back. We let guys do what they need to do."
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"He's been fine," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He doesn't say much. I don't think there are any issues at all."
There were issues in Texas. Padilla went from Rangers Pitcher of the Year in 2008 to bad teammate of the year in less than 12 months, but he insists he's always been the same person. Yes, he throws inside because that's what he believes he has to do in order to establish his fastball. And if he happens to hit a batter along the way, well, that's the hitter's fault for not moving out of the way.
The way Padilla sees it, home plate is the battlefield between the hitter and the pitcher, so he'll throw his fastball, sinker, curveball and even his 55-mph eephus pitch to get the upper hand.
It's not personal, and he wonders what all of the fuss is about. Padilla has hit 49 batters in the past four seasons but has not hit a batter since joining the Dodgers.
"If you don't throw inside in this league, you will have problems with good hitters," Padilla said. "I've always thrown that way."
The right-hander has already come a long way.
Padilla signed with the D-backs in 1998 out of Nicaragua because baseball provided the opportunity to pay the bills and see the world. As one story goes, he showed up for his tryout with the D-backs on a donkey. He said he never dreamed of being the next Nicaraguan pitching sensation like Dennis Martinez or as famous as countryman Alexis Arguello, a former world champion boxer.
Padilla just wanted to pitch, make a living and help his family. He was raised in poverty by his grandparents 90 minutes outside of Managua under the watchful eye of the Marxist-based Sandinista regime in the war-torn town of Chinandega, so he understands real pressure -- and oppression.
Baseball does not elicit real pressure.
"Pressure doesn't help anybody. Why feel pressure?" Padilla said. "You do the work to prepare and you go do the job. You can't control anything but working hard and preparing. You try to do more than you can and things go wrong."
It should come as no surprise that Padilla and Ramirez have quickly become friends. Like Ramirez, Padilla loves the game and understands the business side of baseball. But the duo also shares the belief that winning or losing is never a matter of life and death.
Death to Padilla is real. It's as real as the sudden passing of the grandparents who took him in as child and as real as finding his estranged father in bed after a fatal heart attack. When Padilla recounts how he narrowly avoided being recruited as a child soldier by Sandinista guerrillas to fight the U.S.-backed Contras and how many of his boyhood friends ended up dead, he thinks about how fortunate he is to be alive.
The love of family, not sport, drives Padilla. His mother, Flora, is traveling from Nicaragua to St. Louis for Saturday's game.
"People take everything so seriously," Ramirez said. "You can't do that. You only get one life, and it's short. You play hard, and if it doesn't work out, you come back the next day."
Padilla's outlook could have been part of the problem in Texas. He angered some of his former teammates because opposing pitchers would retaliate after he hit a batter and it appeared as if Padilla didn't care.
He said he cared. It didn't matter. The Rangers tried to send Padilla a message earlier in the season by placing him on waivers after he hit former Rangers teammate Mark Teixeira twice in a game against the Yankees in June. He hit Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki in what turned out to be his final start for the Rangers, and the A's responded by hitting Michael Young.
Fed up, the Rangers designated Padilla for assignment two days later.
Shortly after his departure, a few former Rangers teammates criticized Padilla for missing meetings and not being a team player. Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd, Padilla's teammate in Philadelphia, was the most vocal critic.
"I'll say it again, nobody ever came up to me and told me anything in Texas," Padilla said. "If I was such a bad teammate, why didn't anyone come say something to me? We could have talked about it. I loved my teammates and Texas. I just work hard and do my job."
Ramirez, who was traded from the Red Sox amid criticism last season, can relate. He also arrived in Los Angeles with a reputation as a bad teammate and questions about his character.
"In this game, you find out who your real friends are when you leave a team," he said. "But you just have to let it go and keep playing. Don't worry about that."
It seems Padilla is heeding Ramirez's advice.
"Everybody wants to make me this bad guy, but what can you do? I can't control that," he said. "I am who I am. I'll just keep working hard and pitch."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.