In Sunday's game, he walked only one, allowed only four hits and lowered his ERA to 1.50. No longer worried about the bicep nerve he damaged late in the 2004 season, Penny not only has his trademark 95-mph fastball, but he's also falling in love again with a split-finger fastball that he's using to finish off hitters who are expecting the heat.
Penny put the splitter in mothballs after the injury and dusted it off only the last week of Spring Training. The idea is to throw it with the same arm speed as the fastball, but the split-finger grip causes the ball to slow to around 87 mph and drop as it approaches the batter, who thinks he sees a fastball coming.
The payoff against the Braves was eight strikeouts and he added six more against the Phillies, including one that caught Ryan Howard looking to end the seventh inning with the score 2-1.
"The splitty is nasty," said Penny. "That was my best pitch in 2004 before the trade. But I never tried it last year. I was just worried about getting myself healthy. Now I don't worry about it. I tried to throw a changeup last year and I tried again in Spring Training, but it just didn't feel right. I just grabbed the ball on the seams and I feel like I can throw it for a strike any time."
Manager Grady Little said that Penny, by pitching into the seventh inning, saved his bullpen, and it needed saving. Although Hong-Chih Kuo and Danys Baez neatly secured Friday night's win, the first game Sunday turned into a relief mess.
Starter Derek Lowe turned a 3-2 lead over to the bullpen in the seventh. Yhency Brazoban faced three batters and allowed the tying run. Kuo bailed Brazoban out of further trouble to end the seventh, only to leave a first-and-second jam for Takashi Saito, whose Major League debut turned into a slick comebacker double-play grounder.
"Until my junior year in college, I was an infielder," said Saito, who looked like one.
Holding back Baez to protect a lead, Little turned the tied game over to 29-year-old rookie Tim Hamulack, added as the 12th pitcher after initially being optioned to Triple-A.
Hamulack wasn't lucky. Rafael Furcal booted Alex Gonzalez's leadoff grounder, which was followed by a sacrifice bunt and intentional walk. One out later Bobby Abreu, who drove in five runs on the day, slugged a three-run walk-off homer off Hamulack, who knew the feeling from last year, when he allowed two home runs to the Phillies in a brief outing for the Mets.
Hamulack not only had to overcome Furcal's error, his rhythm was interrupted when he was called for a balk by first-base umpire Laz Diaz, who was overruled by plate umpire Rick Reed, who had called time.
All things considered, Little gave Hamulack high marks.
"We were impressed with what he did out there," said Little. "He made one bad pitch. We have a lot of confidence in him and we will tomorrow."
It's not clear whether the bullpen is still sorting itself out or whether Little is still getting acquainted with the arms down there. But other than Baez, now the closer, roles are uncertain.
"We like the talent we have here," Little said. "We're still feeling our way through it with this bullpen in the absence of Eric [Gagne]. It's a matter of getting them into the right spots. I think next week we'll feel like each individual has settled into the spot he needs to be."
Little found the right guy for the right spot in the nightcap when he called on Lance Carter to follow Penny. Carter, who did not appear in the tight first game even though he was once a closer who saved 26 games for Tampa Bay in 2003, pitched the final two innings and allowed one run.
Carter's job was made much easier when the Dodgers offense added four runs over the final two innings. Although Penny put his club ahead to stay with a broken-bat RBI single in the fourth inning, backup catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. was the hitting star for the Dodgers with three hits, including a double, two RBIs and a run scored. He's hitting .476.
"Since the beginning of Spring Training I've been working with Eddie Murray on being aggressive and hitting the ball before it crosses the plate, and it's made a big difference for me," said Alomar, who shares time with Dioner Navarro.
Navarro, who had only one hit during his injury-shortened Spring Training, slugged a solo home run in the opener.