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Penny having a much cooler season

July 18, 2007|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Last season, Dodgers right-hander Brad Penny was perceived as a human powder keg with a short fuse. He clashed with umpires, his manager, Grady Little, and teammate Kenny Lofton.

A year later, Penny is channeling all that explosiveness into his delivery to the plate. He has maintained a calm demeanor on the mound, and is a supportive teammate in the clubhouse.

And why not? Life is good. Coming off his second consecutive All-Star game appearance, Penny beat the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night to improve to 11-1, tying him for the National League lead in victories. He has a 2.33 earned-run average, has struck out 90 and walked 37 in 123 2/3 innings.

Nothing seems to ruffle Penny these days.

Nothing, that is, except asking him about the second half of last season.

Penny has been sensitive about questions about his slide last season after the All-Star break, when he went 6-7 with a 6.25 ERA.

"I won 16 games last year, a career high," Penny said, "but when I was struggling, people said I was overthrowing, trying to throw everything 100 miles an hour. The truth is, I was suffering from a bulging disk. I had trouble bending over, but it was easier for people to say I was overthrowing."

Penny said he spent the off-season doing back exercises, starting his cardiovascular workout for this season two months earlier.

"I have never felt better," he said of this season.

As for his hot-head reputation, "I have only been thrown out of games a couple of times and it happened here [as a Dodger]."

Said Dodger pitching coach Rick Honeycutt: "It's tough enough to play this game when you're healthy. That [the injury] led to his inconsistency."

Despite Penny's All-Star selection and 16 wins last season, Honeycutt sees an improvement this year.

"He worked hard in the off-season because he felt he had something to prove," Honeycutt said. "He's using all of his pitches now. Before, when things got tougher, he just [tried to throw] harder. Now he starts throwing his fastball 91, 92 and adds to it as the game goes on. All of a sudden, he's throwing 95, 96, but he's still smooth."

*

Mike Lieberthal, the 14-year veteran serving as the Dodgers' backup catcher, got his 10th start of the season Tuesday night.

He also got more needling from his teammates. Accused in the past of being unable to cut the cord with the Phillies, his previous team, Lieberthal was greeted, when he came out for batting practice, with a highlight reel of his days in Philadelphia on the stadium's scoreboard big screen, courtesy of fellow Dodger Luis Gonzalez.

Before his last start, Lieberthal found his locker stall adorned with balloons and a congratulatory sign.

"Whoever bought those balloons," said Little, joining in on the fun, "they are not going to go broke if they have them for every game he starts for us."

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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