Chase Headley will not likely forget Oct. 1 anytime soon.
The Padres third base prospect and Texas League Player of the Year had been called up on Sept. 25 for the stretch run in San Diego. The season finished with Colorado and San Diego in a tie, and the teams played a one-game playoff on Oct. 1 in Colorado. Headley was called on to pinch-hit in the top of the 13th inning in an extremely tense situation. As Headley strode confidently to the plate, one thought stuck in his head: What the heck was he doing there?
"That's exactly what I was thinking," Headley said with a laugh. "I had come home at the end of the Texas League season. Out of nowhere they called me back. I hadn't been hitting. By the time I got there, I hadn't seen live pitching in two and a half weeks. Then I go up in the 13th inning in the most important game of the season. Luckily, I got that out of my head."
Headley singled in that at-bat, though the Padres went on to lose in the bottom of the inning. That base hit isn't why he was MiLB.com's easy choice for Double-A Offensive Player of the Year.
His complete dominance in the Texas League clinched that one. He finished in the top five in nearly every offensive category imaginable:
Batting average -- .330 (1st)
On-base percentage -- .437 (1st)
Slugging percentage -- .580 (1st)
OPS -- 1.016 (1st)
Doubles -- 38 (3rd)
Walks -- 74 (tied, 3rd)
Hits -- 144 (4th)
Total bases -- 251 (4th)
Home runs -- 20 (tied, 4th)
RBI -- 78 (tied, 4th)
Runs -- 82 (5th)
Headley was particularly productive in the first half of the season, when he hit .357 with a 1.081 OPS. Thirteen of his 20 home runs came before the All-Star break. After a solid first full season in 2006, Headley used some offseason lessons, and a serious weight-training program, to help him make a huge leap forward this year.
"I think the Arizona Fall League was a big step last year," said Headley, who hit .257 in 28 AFL games in 2006. "The Padres gave me the chance to go from A-ball. I didn't set the world on fire, but I think I held my own. More importantly, I learned a ton. That led me into this year.
"In the first half, I'd never felt better in my life. I felt every time up I'd hit it hard. The second half, I still felt pretty good, but it was harder."
Headley did hit .301 in the second half, but his slugging dipped from .648 to .505. The cause for the change? Headley thinks Texas League pitchers approached him a little differently when he returned from a 12-day stint in the Majors, where he went 3-for-17 over seven games.
"When I got back from the big leagues, pitchers were pitching me more carefully," Headley said. "There weren't nearly as many mistakes as I saw in the first half."
Headley found other ways to contribute while being pitched around. His on-base percentage was higher in the second half as he worked hard not to expand his own zone to hit bad pitches. It's a lesson he began learning in high school when he was constantly being pitched around. It continued through his college career at Tennessee and has served him well up until this point, particularly in an organization that preaches the value of on-base skills.
"I learned then that it's OK to walk and get on base," Headley said. "On-base percentage has always been important to me. I've held onto it and it really became important in the second half.
"It was nice when I came into the organization. [Vice President of Player Development and Scouting] Grady Fuson was in his first or second year and he was trying to instill that philosophy. For some guys, it was a big change. For me, it was perfect. I felt I had an advantage."
That being said, he certainly didn't think it was an edge that would get him to San Diego this quickly, either for a June stint or an extra-inning at-bat in October. Every player wants to reach the Major Leagues as quickly as possible, but Headley had to admit that the timetable was not this fast in his head.
"Coming into the year, I wouldn't have told you I'd be in the big leagues," he admitted. "If you'd have told me that I would've been in the big leagues June 15, I would've told you you're crazy. Once you get to Double-A, though, you're a phone call away. You don't know how close you are until you get that phone call."
The Padres, for their part, weren't that surprised. They see a 2005 second-round pick who has improved by leaps and bounds in all aspects of his game. His work ethic helped put him in the position to get that early callup.
"This kid worked very hard to achieve what he's done," Fuson said. "He committed himself with his defense, his two-strike approach and his body. And he's not done. There's still room to carry more strength.
He's always been a good hitter, he controls the strike zone and the power is still developing. He's passionate about being the best player he can be."
The question that really remains is at what position will he be the best player. Outside of a few weeks in the outfield at Tennessee, Headley has been a third baseman. Anyone who saw Kevin Kouzmanoff, MiLB.com's Offensive Player of the Year last year, hit .320 and slug .530 in the second half of the 2007 season sees the issue. First base isn't an option with Adrian Gonzalez entrenched at that corner. Kouzmanoff had fiddled around some in the outfield in the past, but hasn't seen any competitive time there. Eventually, something will have to give, but Headley is trying not to waste any time or energy dwelling on it.
"Nothing has been said to me, in terms of changing positions, or anything like that," Headley said. "That's not to say it won't happen. But as of right now, all I can go is full steam ahead at third base.
"I'm going into next spring trying to put myself in the best position to win a spot. I honestly think I can play in the big leagues and contribute to that team. That's my outlook on it right now. You can't get caught up with what's ahead of you. You can take care of what you can control and hopefully the rest of the things will fall into place."