Padres camp report: Hundley battles to re-ignite career

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It is the most awkward scene of the spring.

Locker closest to the showers, the young, veteran catcher trying to piece his fractured career back together.

Next locker over, the drug cheat attempting to swipe his job paces, caged for now by his impending 50-game suspension.

Nick Hundley, 29, is immensely popular in the Padres clubhouse. Wholesome kid, good teammate, hard worker.

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Yasmani Grandal, 24, is acres of shadows and dark alleys. From rookie sensation to darkness on the edge of town with one dirty vial of urine.

“That’s not my decision,” Hundley says, shrugging away the awkwardness as best he can. “If I’m right, I believe I can be the best in the world. That’s not arrogance.

“I just, I don’t really care what other people do. His failed test, that’s not anything I have any control over.”

Were Grandal’s eight homers and 36 RBI over 60 games last season real? Is that .297 batting average and .394 on-base percentage what the Padres can continue to expect?

Or is it all little more than the artificially inflated optimism of some high-grade performance-enhancing drugs?

What we know is absolutely real is this: Barely more than a month after signing a three-year, $9 million deal last March 20, Nick Hundley was in trouble.

Mid-April, he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee moving to block a Huston Street wild pitch. His foot became entangled with that of plate ump Joe West, his knee popped, but he kept it quiet.

He fell into an 0-for-21 hole with eight strikeouts to start the season, and couldn’t keep that quiet.

He was batting .166 at the end of June when he unceremoniously was shipped to Triple-A Tucson.

“I’ve played with Nick every year going back to when we were drafted (2005), and I know the type of person he is,” third baseman Chase Headley says. “How hard he works. How much he cares.

“When you watch a person going through a year like that, you want to do everything possible to help him out.”

By September, Hundley was rehabbing following knee surgery, season finished.

In September, Grandal had emerged as the flavor of the month, San Diego’s catcher of the future. We know, now, he took shortcuts to get there.

“Your job, your livelihood, is on the line every day,” Hundley says. “No matter what other people are doing.

“It’s not the San Diego boys’ club where everybody gets a turn. It’s a business, with big money at stake. We choose it.

“You deal with individuals whose decisions you don’t agree with. But that’s beyond my control.”

Despite their fourth-place finish, the Padres were one of the toughest draws on the National League schedule after the All-Star break last summer. In part because of the emergence of young players like Grandal, they went 42-33 in the second half, successfully building momentum for this year.

Now, Grandal is out until May 28. Which gives backup John Baker an opportunity … and leaves the door wide open for Hundley to re-establish himself.

“I’m ready,” Hundley says. “I spent a lot of time getting myself prepared.”

Aside from his knee, Hundley is not happy with how he handled things last April and May. He pressed. Tried to prove he was worth the contract. Made so many adjustments on the fly he tied himself in knots. Emptied his tank mentally.

“I believe I have four tanks: spiritual, emotional, mental and physical,” he says. “My job is to make sure, each day, that those four tanks are full. Really, it’s being your own self-scout, make sure you’re ready to go.”

Physically, Hundley is fine. He’s moving well this spring. He worked extensively with hitting coach Phil Plantier over the winter to eliminate some bad habits.

“Behind the plate, he was fine,” manager Bud Black says. “It was more offensively. He’s been in tune with his responsibilities as a catcher. If he wouldn’t be, he wouldn’t play for me.

“It was just that, all the harder he tried, the worse it got. He cares so much. He tried harder, and when you do that, sometimes it beats you up.”

Both Hundley and the Padres were blindsided. He was coming off of a second-half in 2011 in which he hit .367 with a 1.060 OPS.

Now, he thinks back to something starter Jason Marquis told him last year: I’ve played a long time, Marquis told him, not to prove people wrong. But to prove the people who believe in me are right.

“That struck a chord,” Hundley says. “Not to play bitter.”

So each morning, as the drug cheat dresses next to him, targeting his job, Hundley thinks about these things.

“I met with Hundley and a couple of other guys individually,” Grandal says. “They’ve been pretty supportive.”

Hundley knows no other way. Punch in each day, work hard, prepare himself, be there for his teammates. There are no shortcuts. Let others play the angles.

“That’s the way it is in life,” Hundley says. “You can’t say baseball is the only place that happens.

“It’s not my place to judge. My place is to take care of Nick Hundley. To make sure when I go to sleep at night, I’ve done everything I can to be successful.

“And then I sleep good.”

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