SAN DIEGO — Lance McCullers would be in trouble if he didn't get hurt every few years.
It took an injury to his elbow to convince him to give up football.
And it took a muscle strain in his side to make him stop trying to throw harder than Goose Gossage, his mentor, or Dwight Gooden, a hometown rival.
McCullers, a 215-pound specimen built along the lines of a pulling guard, which he used to be, has assumed a prominent position alongside Gossage in the San Diego bullpen. If Gossage is the Padres' No. 1 reliever, McCullers is fast becoming No. 1-A.
The 22-year old right-hander has a 1-1 record, one save and a team-leading 1.35 earned-run average.
"He can be a premium reliever in the National League," Manager Steve Boros said. "All he needs is experience. The edge Goose has over him right now is the years of getting big hitters out in big moments."
Gossage was still in his prime with the New York Yankees when McCullers made the decision to abandon a career in football.
McCullers was an offensive lineman and defensive tackle at Catholic High School in Tampa. It was while setting up to pass block for his quarterback that McCullers was hurt. His right elbow was struck by a defensive lineman's helmet.
"It wasn't all that serious," McCullers said. "My arm healed in a few weeks. But it was a warning to me. I didn't want to take another chance. Besides, I never liked football that much."
After deciding to concentrate on baseball, his progress was rapid. A second-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982, he was traded to the Padre organization a year later.
By late 1985 he was ready for the big leagues. After being called up from the Padres' Pacific Coast League farm team in Las Vegas, he was named San Diego's rookie of the year for saving five games and compiling a 2.31 ERA when Gossage suffered a knee injury in August.
Padre fans regarded him as their "Baby Goose."
The problem was that McCullers seemed to see himself in the same light--and was trying too hard to match or exceed the velocity of a Gossage fastball.
However, a pulled muscle in his rib cage earlier this year helped transform McCullers into a more controlled and skillful player.
Before the injury he seemingly was attempting to launch every fastball at speeds of 100 miles per hour. The effort was sometimes counter-productive.
His delivery lacked the smooth, fluid motion of Gooden, a product, like McCullers, of Tampa, Fla.
McCullers was not a pretty sight as he wound up for yet another all-out fastball. His motion was so distorted his head would jerk toward first base, pulling his front shoulder in the same direction and damaging his mechanics.
Boros and pitching coach Galen Cisco could see that McCullers was hurting his control and ability to throw other pitches, such as a slider and changeup.
Cisco in particular helped McCullers refine his motion in the days when his rib cage was still healing last month.
Now that he's well, McCullers no longer is jerking his head and pulling open with his left shoulder, according to Boros.
"Since the injury, he really has gained command of the slider and the change," Boros said. "It's unusual to see such a young pitcher able to throw strikes with finesse pitches, which makes it a lot tougher for batters looking for that fastball."
McCullers, who was aware hitters were "sitting" on his fastball, isn't afraid to throw a 3-2 slider now. In fact, he retired Pittsburgh's Johnny Ray on just such a pitch to end a game last week.
Montreal's Hubie Brooks hit a game-winning homer off a McCullers fastball just inches out of the dirt on Friday night. It wasn't a bad pitch so much as a piece of exceptional hitting by Brooks, who leads the league in homers and runs batted in.
McCullers is sold on his new delivery.
"It's more compact," he said. "Everything is going to the plate at once. Before, it was all arm, trying to whip the ball. Now I'm using my whole body. I'm not overthrowing, and my fastball is sinking more. But I know I can't get outs just by throwing the fastball."
The fastball was his primary weapon until last summer, when Sonny Siebert, the pitching coach at Las Vegas, taught McCullers the slider.
"I had been inconsistent with my curve," McCullers said. "In fact, my curve was always more of a 'slurve' (a hybrid slider-curve). Sonny showed me how to throw the slider off the motion I use for my fastball."
Another lesson was imparted by Gossage this year.
McCullers' tendency to throw too hard during a game was preceded by a pattern of warming up too aggressively.
"Goose told me I was throwing too long and leaving too much in the pen," McCullers said. "He said I wouldn't be able to lift my arm later in the year if I didn't change. So now I just want to get to the point where I'm starting to pop my fastball when I go in the game."
He has little sense of how much "stuff" he is taking to the mound. But he found that with a little surge of adrenaline, his pitches usually look better when he's facing a batter in a troublesome spot.