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Headley’s hot streak no mirage for Padres

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SAN DIEGO — At first, Chase Headley's power surge seemed like a mirage.

He was going to cool off, right?

As summer dragged on, Headley only got hotter.

Going into Tuesday's games, the San Diego Padres' third baseman had 27 homers and an NL-leading 102 RBIs, extending his career bests in both categories and helping to breathe some life into a team that's out of contention but is playing much better than during its dreadful 19-40 start.

In past seasons, Headley was criticized for not putting up the kind of numbers expected of a third baseman. He came into this year with 36 homers and 204 RBIs in parts of five big league seasons. His previous bests were 12 homers and 64 RBIs in 2009, his first full big league season.

The switch-hitter seems to be making up for lost time with a more aggressive approach and adjustments to his swing that are helping him cope with spacious Petco Park.

"It's gratifying," Headley said. "Anytime you face adversity it makes it sweeter when you're able to overcome that. I don't run from the type of player I was. It wasn't for lack of effort, I can tell you that much. I know the guys in this clubhouse at least respected the way I went about it and did everything I could do to help us win.

"Having said that, I knew what I wanted to do and I hadn't done that. To kind of turn that corner and hopefully be able to sustain that going forward, it means a lot."

Headley vowed to be a more consistent run producer this year, then went on a tear. His 19 homers and 60 RBIs since the All-Star break lead the majors. That stretch alone has eclipsed the four homers and 44 RBIs he had in 2011, when he missed 39 games with a broken finger.

Those around him are impressed.

"When you can sustain this kind of damage for an extended period of time like this, I don't think you're running hot anymore. I think you're just kind of doing what you do," hitting coach Phil Plantier said.

"He's always been a good player, but since Aug. 1 he's been a dominant player," general manager Josh Byrnes said.

This is the 18th time a Padres player has had a 100-RBI season and the first since Adrian Gonzalez had 101 in 2010.

Headley can't point to any one moment when things started to change.

"I think just once a couple started to happen, it was like then the confidence was there. It's not like I didn't believe that it was in there. I hit for some power in the minor leagues. I played in San Antonio and it feels like this place does," he said, referring to Petco Park. "I knew it was there. But it's different doing it in the minor leagues and doing it in the big leagues. It's great now that I'm finally doing some of the things I knew I was capable of doing."

Headley took over the NL lead in RBIs at 102 with a grand slam deep into the right field seats at home against Arizona on Sunday. Two nights earlier, he drove in four runs on two homers, one from each side of the plate.

Manager Bud Black said Headley has both a keen eye and a different mindset than in the past.

"I think you're seeing more aggressive swings early in the count over the last 2 1/2 months," Black said. "You're seeing him taking the at-bat to the pitcher. That mindset, being the aggressor, has shifted to the opposition. Where in previous years, as a younger player, they attacked him, now he's attacking them."

Plantier, the Padres' sixth hitting coach since Petco Park opened in 2004, takes no credit for Headley's surge.

"Hitting is all about feelings," said Plantier, who while with the Padres in 1993 reached 100 RBIs with a three-run homer — his 34th — in the season's penultimate game. "You feel your swing, you feel your body and he's found that feeling. You develop those things by having a good routine every day. You create those feelings with drills. He's found some things that work for him. And really, those drills coach him. He makes sure that when he walks out of that cage, he has that feeling. He already knows how to put an at-bat together. Now he's got another little toy to play with when he's at the plate."

Headley said he's worked hard at elevating the ball on the pull side.

"I hit the ball the other way as well as I have my entire career last year, but it's awfully hard to hit a lot of home runs the other way, especially in this ballpark," he said. "I mean, in any ballpark you don't see guys hitting more than maybe five or six home runs a year the opposite way. So I knew that if I was going to be able to do a little bit more damage and hit more home runs, that I'd have to get back into that swing, at least have it there and know how to do it when that pitch comes.

"In the middle of the field, man, it's tough to hit a lot of home runs. If you can hit it to the shorter part of the field, then you've got a lot better chance."

Headley also credits his teammates.

"It has a lot to do with the other guys, too," he said. "Pitchers are facing a lot of stress. Guys are on base constantly and that wears them out. When you come up and you're getting two to three times a game where you have a chance to drive in runs, it's a lot less stressful than it is to come up in one situation and try to get it done."

Headley attracted the interest of several teams approaching the trade deadline but the Padres didn't get an offer that made them jump into a deal.

"I'm excited to be here. That was a little bit of a tough time, not having gone through that before," he said. "When that was all said and done, it was back to just playing baseball and going out and having fun."

The Padres have given contract extensions to a handful of players as they build for the future under new ownership headed by the O'Malley and Seidler families and local businessman Ron Fowler. Headley, under team control for two more years, isn't one of them, perhaps because the club wants to see how prospect Jedd Gyorko develops.

"I love San Diego. This is the only organization I know," said Headley, who added that he's not offended he hasn't received a long-term deal. "I'd like to be here as long as I can. I understand they have decisions to make. ... I'll just keep playing, keep hitting and you try to help your team win games. When that time comes, we'll cross that road."