There is a whole lot to like about Andrew Cashner, from his smoking fastball to his killer slider to his laconic Texas demeanor.
Personally, my favorite thing about the Padres fast-emerging ace came in the moments following last Friday’s re-arranging of the Tigers’ stripes.
He had just fired the second one-hitter in his past five starts dating back to last Sept. 16, having taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning while threatening to turn Motown into No-Notown, when someone asked him about his latest flirtation with a no-hitter and his desire to grab one.
"It’s one of my goals," he said flatly.
"I definitely want a no-hitter," he declared.
To be a true, honest-to-goodness, legitimate ace, it takes an entire package, a whole lot more than an assassin’s repertoire of pitches. It takes an attitude, an arrogance, that when you’re on that hill, you’re the baddest man in town.
Cashner has it. The pitches. The demeanor. The reach-for-the-moon desire.
The comment reminded me of what we’ve heard in the past from the ace across the field who would pitch in San Diego the night after Cashner, Detroit’s Justin Verlander.
Verlander already has thrown two no-hitters. Only five pitchers in major league history have thrown as many as three. Verlander has publically talked about his desire for more no-nos, and to pitch his way into the Hall of Fame.
The great ones have swag. Cashner, to a degree, is a late-bloomer at 27. But given his rapid progression since the middle of last season, those Padres fans who were upset when the club shipped first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs for Cashner on Jan. 6, 2012, soon will have forgotten the original planned replacement for Adrian Gonzalez. Ratso? Rizzo? Who?
Cashner is 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA in three starts this season heading into Wednesday night’s duel with the Rockies. Beginning with the All-Star break last season, Cashner is 6-5 with a 1.96 ERA over his past 96.2 innings pitched, and during that time, he’s fanned 83 hitters and walked only 25.
The midway point of last year is a key because that’s about the time when, finally, the hand injury he suffered while hunting during the 2012-2013 offseason had healed enough to allow him to throw his sinker with confidence.
Accidentally stabbed by a friend as they were cleaning a carcass, Cashner suffered a lacerated tendon near the thumb on his pitching hand.
Not only did that set him behind last season, preventing him from joining the rotation until late April, it also handicapped his slider.
"After the thumb surgery, I had a hard time getting on top of it," he says of the slider. "One day, it just kind of clicked."
No coincidence that Cashner’s 2013 started to click at roughly the same time.
To that point, the way Cashner describes it, he was simply "casting the ball" while attempting to throw the slider, as you "cast" a fishing pole. Since, he’s been throwing the pitch with both confidence and authority, with his hand finally properly positioned atop the ball. Which allows him to properly snap the pitch at its release point to give it the bite it needs.
Now, he says, along with the aid of Padres pitching coach/guru Darren Balsley, his sinker is moving the best it ever has.
And though he can hit 99, 100 mph on the radar gun, he’s smartly calibrated his fastball, dialing it down for maximum durability. No way a starting pitcher can maintain that speed and last deep into games. So Cashner pitches mostly between 90 and 95 mph, reaching back for more when he needs it.
Add to that the slider in the 84-86 mph range, and a changeup in the mid-70s, and hitters sometimes must make a 20 mph adjustment from pitch-to-pitch.
Add the 6-6, 235-pound frame, the intimidating bushy blonde bear… and good luck.
"I think he’s still learning, still growing," Padres manager Bud Black says. "The slider and change as secondary pitches, I think he can keep working on those."
Still, what he’s done lately is borderline ridiculous. In that one-hitter in Pittsburgh last September, he became the first Padres pitcher ever to face the minimum of 27 batters in a game. And now, two one-hitters in his past five starts?
"Teams are going to start looking hard at Andrew Cashner," Black says. "He’s going to have to make pitches [because] I think teams are really going to bear down on, how are we going to beat this guy?"
As everyone from Verlander to the Swingin’ Friar knows by now, the Padres are the only franchise in the majors to never have had one of their own throw a no-hitter.
With Cashner aboard, it’s reached the point where every fifth day, that could change. And the way he’s going, the Cashner-Rizzo deal could wind up on the short list of most regretful trades in Cubs history, right there somewhere behind shipping Lou Brock to the Cardinals for Ernie Broglio in 1964.
At the very least, the Padres may want to consider hiring an off-season bodyguard to accompany Cashner on his beloved hunting expeditions. He says he spent 85 days hunting last winter.
"Baseball will not keep me out of the woods," he vows.
His pitches, on the other hand, appear destined to keep opposing hitters IN the woods.
“Longtime national baseball columnist, Scott Miller, will be a weekly contributor to FOXSportsSanDiego.com, discussing the San Diego Padres and Major League Baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter at @ScottMillerBbl.”