Stults has Dad to thank for turning to baseball
Growing up in Indiana, left-hander's initial passion was basketball
SAN DIEGO -- Eric Stults' athletic upbringing sounds like something straight out of the movie "Hoosiers."
The Padres pitcher grew up in Indiana on a farm, which had a barn that not only housed farm equipment but also a basketball hoop. Where's Jimmy Chitwood when you need him?
"I think all kids in Indiana dream of playing basketball their entire life," Stults said. "I could play any time that I wanted. I even had a light [inside] for at night."
For the longest time, Stults was convinced his future was in basketball. He played in high school and did so later at nearby Bethel College, an NAIA powerhouse.
"You could say that my first love was basketball," Stults said. "But my dad had a passion for baseball."
While Stults was preoccupied with basketball, Dave Stults made sure baseball got a place on his plate. He even coached Eric at a younger age.
It's probably a good thing Dave urged his son to at least consider other possibilities outside of the game of basketball.
Stults is enjoying something of a career revival this season with the Padres at age 33. He takes a 5-5 record and a 3.53 ERA in 13 starts into Friday's game against the D-backs at Petco Park. Better still, he's in a stretch of 22 consecutive innings without a walk.
Since being claimed off waivers in May 2012 from the White Sox, Stults has consistently performed well. He had a 3.23 ERA in 27 starts since joining the team, and the Padres are 18-9 in games that he's started.
Stults may be a late bloomer, but he has also essentially reinvented himself as he's moved along during his career. Call it smart, call it survival.
"I think I've learned a lot. I guess if you would look at my career, you might say I'm a late bloomer. I'm a different kind of pitcher now. I've learned to change speeds," Stults said.
"Hitters are good. I've learned that even a pitch at 84-85 mph located on the corner of the plate [is better] than, when I was younger, throwing 92-93 and not being able to locate it."
Stults didn't make his Major League debut until he was 26, with the Dodgers in 2006. He threw harder back then, but the results were mixed. He always seemed to be the odd man out with the Dodgers in parts of four seasons (2006-09).
Stults realized he had to find a different way to make an impact.
"A lot of young guys have one motor; they want to go fast, fast, fast. Go for the strikeout. All of that's OK, but for me, it's knowing when is the right time to throw that hard fastball," Stults said. "So when I was younger, it was max effort all the time. That would lead to walks or not well-executed pitches."
With the Padres, Stults has been a strike-throwing machine: In his first 27 starts, his walks-per-nine-innings ratio is a scant 2.04.
"Eric goes about it his way. I like his demeanor, his thought process," said Padres manager Bud Black. "You don't have to strike guys out if you give up fewer hits than innings pitched."
Black then paused.
"I appreciate it," Black said of Stults' game.
Reaching this point, the pinnacle of his career, hasn't always been easy.
It started during Stults' time in Los Angeles, where he always seemed to be on the outside of the rotation looking in, along with the club's plans.
"I felt like I was throwing the ball well enough to stay in the big leagues, but I was the odd man out," said Stults, who suffered a thumb injury in 2009 that took him completely off the Dodgers' radar. "I was discouraged when I did get hurt. By the time I came back, someone else had already filled that spot."
So Stults headed to ... Japan?
"It was late in spring in 2010. The Dodgers had enough guys. I was going to be that sixth guy, and I was out of options. I didn't really know where my career was headed," Stults said. "They said there were a couple of Japanese teams that were interested in me. At that point, I was 30 years old, had two kids ... and financially, it made sense."
After a season in Japan, Stults spent the 2011 campaign in the Rockies' organization. He then headed to the White Sox in 2012, but was dismissed in May. He went home to Indiana, spent time with his family and kept his left arm fresh by throwing in the yard. Then the Padres called, and life hasn't been the same since.
Not too shabby for someone who once chased a different kind of round ball. Stults still thinks about his time playing in that barn as a kid. Basketball will always be a part of his life.
"I had countless one-on-one games with Michael Jordan in my head, making that '3-2-1' shot over him," Stults said. "But I wasn't going anywhere in basketball. I give my dad credit. He's the one who got me involved in baseball."