Legendary San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman recorded 601 saves over the course of an illustrious 18-year major-league career, a mark that as of 2020 stood as the second-most saves by a major-league pitcher, behind only Mariano Rivera. The California native saved 40 or more games nine times, with two separate four-year stints of doing so, from 1998 to 2001 and from 2004 to 2007. In between those stints, the 2018 Hall of Fame inductee endured the only significant injury of his career, one that kept him out for nearly a full season.
Hoffman underwent surgery in October 2002 for a torn right rotator cuff and fraying of cartilage. When pain persisted, he opted to undergo an additional surgery, in February 2003, to repair his right shoulder bone. “My goal is to get as good as I can get, be healthy, 100 percent and help this ballclub in the future,” Hoffman said.1 The injury marked the first time in Hoffman’s 10-year career that he landed on the disabled list.2 Hoffman didn’t pitch again until September 2, when he made his triumphant return at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It had been a disappointing season for San Diego, which sat at a meager 55-82 entering the game, trailing the surging San Francisco Giants by 28½ games in the NL West. Beyond missing their star closer, the Padres’ offense felt the absence of the recently retired Tony Gwynn. Second baseman Mark Loretta was their only player batting above .290, and first baseman Ryan Klesko was their only 20-home-run hitter.
Just two years removed from a World Series championship title, the Diamondbacks were also in the midst of a mediocre season, with their two mound aces missing significant time with injuries. A sprained right knee put Randy Johnson on the DL in mid-April. He aggravated the injury upon his return, on April 27, and underwent knee surgery in early May that kept him out until late July.3 Then, in late May, Padres third baseman Sean Burroughs hit a line drive that broke Curt Schilling’s pitching hand and kept him out until mid-July.4
Despite their underwhelming season, the Padres entered September 2 on a hot streak, having won four of their previous five games, with two of the wins coming in Arizona. The game featured two young starters: Right-hander Ben Howard, making his fourth career start, for San Diego and left-hander Chris Capuano, making his third career start, for the Diamondbacks.
Howard had started against Arizona a week before, surrendering four earned runs in 6⅓ innings on August 26, though the Padres came back to win the game on RBI doubles by Phil Nevin and Klesko off Jose Valverde. Capuano had faced San Diego in his last start, on July 9, recording his first career win as he allowed only three hits and one unearned run in seven innings.
Diamondbacks third baseman Shea Hillenbrand, acquired in a May trade with the Boston Red Sox, homered off Howard in the top of the second to put Arizona up 1-0. The Padres responded in the bottom of the inning; Nevin tied the game with a home run and a double by Gary Matthews Jr. and a single by Gary Bennett put San Diego ahead, 2-1.
After Howard pitched a one-two-three third, San Diego tacked on two more in the bottom half of the inning. Giles drove in a run on a fielder’s choice and Nevin followed with his second RBI of the game, on a single that put the Padres up 4-1.
Howard worked around Luis Gonzalez’s single to pitch a scoreless fourth, and the Padres kept piling on. Shortstop Ramon Vazquez singled and Capuano hit Burroughs with a pitch. Loretta lined a two-out RBI single to right that chased Capuano from the game. Left-hander Dennys Reyes came in and retired Giles to end the inning. Capuano went 3⅔ innings, surrendering five runs (all earned), nine hits, and one walk with two strikeouts.
Howard continued to quiet Arizona in the fifth, giving up only an infield single to pinch-hitter Quinton McCracken. John Patterson replaced Reyes on the mound for the Diamondbacks in the bottom half. Arizona right fielder Raul Mondesi suffered a mild right-groin strain and was replaced by Danny Bautista.5 Patterson set Nevin, Matthews, and Mark Kotsay down in order to keep the score at 5-1.
Howard ran into some trouble in the sixth. After he retired Steve Finley, a walk to Bautista and Gonzalez’s double put two on with one out. Howard got Hillenbrand and Carlos Baerga to ground out, stranding both runners. His day ended there: Keith Lockhart pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the inning. Howard allowed six hits in his six innings, striking out three and walking one, with Hillenbrand’s homer accounting for the only run he allowed. Patterson pitched a one-two-three bottom of the sixth for Arizona.
Hoffman entered the game to start the seventh. He opted not to enter the game to AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” as he usually did, deciding that he would rather wait to play the song in his first save situation back. “I think some of the theatrics should be saved for the ninth inning,” he elaborated. “We weren’t real sure what type of situation I might be coming into, 10 runs down or 10 runs up. I felt a little remiss that it wasn’t played, but at the same time I’m glad they respected our wishes about not trying to make a big deal of it.”6
Catcher Rod Barajas led off the inning and flied out to center. Mark Grace hit for Patterson and bounced to first, with Nevin flipping the ball to Hoffman to record the putout. Counsell grounded out to second to end the inning.
Hoffman retired the side on only eight pitches, throwing seven fastballs and one curveball, but not throwing his signature changeup since his catcher, Bennett, didn’t call for one.7 After the game, Hoffman described how he kept his emotions in check: “My heart was racing and I’m trying to fight those type of emotions. I just wanted to go out there and be normal and get in and get out.”8
Steve Randolph took over for Arizona in the bottom of the seventh. After Burroughs flied out, Loretta hit his 10th homer of the season to extend the lead to 6-1. The shot was initially called foul by third-base umpire Jim Reynolds, but the crew conferred and home-plate umpire Laz Diaz ruled it a home run.9 Randolph walked Giles and gave up a single to Matthews later in the inning, but stranded both runners.
Luther Hackman, appearing in his career-high 59th game of the season, took the mound for San Diego in the top of the ninth with the Padres still leading 6-1. Hillenbrand flied out to lead off but Baerga singled and took second on a wild pitch. Lyle Overbay, hitting for Barajas, popped up to third for the second out. With the Diamondbacks down to their last out, outfielder Félix José batted for Myers and homered to deep center to trim the deficit to 6-3. That home run, his first since September 2002, was the 54th and final homer of José’s career. Kevin Walker replaced Hackman on the mound and retired Junior Spivey, batting for Counsell, on a popup to end the game.
Howard recorded the win, the first of his career, while Capuano fell to 1-3.
Hoffman pitched in eight more games before the end of the season, finishing seven of them but not recording any saves. The Padres finished the season at a lackluster 64-98, while the Diamondbacks ended at 84-78.
Hoffman was back to full health for the 2004 season and returned to his dominant ways, recording 41 saves for a much-improved Padres team that went 87-75.
In 2005 Hoffman saved 43 games and finished 17th in the National League MVP voting. San Diego won a weak NL West at 82-80, and was swept by the Cardinals in the Division Series.
In 2006 Hoffman recorded his 479th career save, surpassing Lee Smith for the most all-time. He recorded a league-high 46 saves, his most since 1998, and finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting. The Padres again fell to St. Louis in the NLDS.
Hoffman finished his career with the Brewers in 2010, recording 10 more saves to put himself over the 600-save threshold.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball-Almanac.com.
1 Associated Press, “Hoffman to Have Surgery Friday to Repair Shoulder,” ESPN.com, February 28, 2003.
2 Associated Press, “Hoffman Decides to Have Surgery,” New York Times, February 26, 2003.
3 United Press International, “Successful Knee Surgery for Randy Johnson,” May 2, 2003.
4 Associated Press, “Schilling Has Broken Hand,” New York Times, June 4, 2003.
5 Associated Press, “San Diego 6, Arizona 3,” ESPN.com, September 3, 2003.
6 Associated Press, “San Diego 6, Arizona 3.”
7 Associated Press, “San Diego 6, Arizona 3.”
8 Associated Press, “San Diego 6, Arizona 3.”
9 Associated Press, “San Diego 6, Arizona 3.”