Hurlers spend time bouncing between Portland, San Diego

Here in Triple-A Portland, at the doorstep of the big leagues, young pitching prospects are trying to live up to their billing. Some have succeeded, some have stopped progressing, some have been sent packing.

Two years ago, the parent San Diego Padres were extremely high on their minor-league starting pitchers. They touted the Double-A rotation of Ben Howard, Jake Peavy, Eric Cyr and Dennis Tankersley, as well as Portland's Jason Middlebrook, as the rotation of the future. Another young prospect, Oliver Perez, was on his way up.

As happens in minor-league ball, however, things stagnate. Middlebrook gave up too many home runs Ñ see Barry Bonds, 2001-02 Ñ in stints with the Padres, and he got traded to the Mets. San Diego waived Cyr. Howard and Tankersley have had chances with the Pads, only to be sent to Portland to work on things.

A success so far, Peavy has been San Diego's most consistent starter.

Then you have Perez, a phenom last year after skipping Portland on his climb to the big leagues. He had great outings at Class A Lake Elsinore (Calif.) and Class AA Mobile (Ala.) before jumping to the Padres, where he went 4-5 with a 3.50 ERA. His best outing: 13 strikeouts and one hit in six-plus innings against Colorado.

But this season, the Padres have not been happy with Perez, 21, who was 1-3 with an 8.23 ERA in six starts, and 24 walks in 27.1 innings. They sent him to Portland on May 1 to work out some kinks under less pressure.

'He had been erratic,' says Portland Manager Rick Sweet, whose club opens an eight-game homestand Saturday night at PGE Park against Las Vegas.

'He has to control his delivery better, where he repeats it,' Beaver pitching coach Mike Couchee says. 'He gets caught in not throwing mechanically the same way.'

Then again, Perez has been solid in five starts, going 2-2. Throw out a loss to Edmonton (5.1 innings, 5 earned runs), and Perez has pitched 24.2 innings and given up only five earned runs and 20 hits. He may not be with Portland long, especially considering how the Padres move players.

A hard-throwing left-hander from Mexico, Perez tops 94 mph with his fastball. He also throws a sweeping slider, curveball and change-up. Like many young pitchers, he needs to work on his 'third pitch,' his change-up, Couchee says.

Meanwhile, the Padres are still high on Tankersley and Howard, both 24. They need to smooth out deliveries, Couchee says. 'Their stuff is plenty good to pitch up (in the bigs),' he says, 'but it's consistency of command they need.'

Mike Bynum, 25, another left-hander, has been put back into the Bevos' rotation after his brief call-up. Sweet and Couchee also are helping get Brian Tollberg, 30, prepared for another shot with the Padres.

'We're building him back up after offseason surgery,' Couchee says.

As far as potential, the Padres' young pitching 'is still rich, but we need to be getting some answers this year,' Sweet says. 'They need to start getting it together this year.'

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