April 10, 2012
It Only Seems Like the Suburbs
Every now and then, someone not from these parts makes the mistake of calling San Diego a suburb of Los Angeles. I'm not very familiar with the East Coast, but my guess based on relative proximity is that this would be like calling Philadelphia a suburb of New York. We are a gentle people, and so just as folks from Hawai'i bristle but remain silent when some guy with a comb-over nursing an umbrella-laden drink loudly proclaims his intent to “go back to the States,” we blink and smile while being offended in a manner that might cause a riot were that same guy to refer to a person from Philadelphia as a New Yorker.
That being said, when the Padres first joined the National League in 1969 they were, in many respects, an offshoot of the Dodgers to the north. Not quite “The Jeffersons” to “All in the Family,” more like “After M*A*S*H” to “M*A*S*H.”
Buzzie Bavasi vacated his position as GM of the Dodgers (who won three World Series and five more NL titles during his 18-year tenure there) to become president and part owner of the Padres. Third-base coach Preston Gomez likewise skipped town to manage the expansion club. Even former Dodgers star Duke Snider migrated south to make his debut as color commentator for the Padres.
Snider also served as a scout, recommending that the team take Clarence “Cito” Gaston with its final pick in the expansion draft. Gaston's stint with the Padres would be mostly forgettable, save for a magical 1970 season that saw him hit .318/.364/.543 with 29 homers in a venue that made Petco Park look like a bandbox.
Short version: San Diego is not a suburb of Los Angeles (nor is Anaheim, but that's a rant for some other day), but the Padres very much evolved from the Dodgers. Which, in its awkward way, sets the stage for Opening Day 2012, when these two teams met again.
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Managers Don Mattingly and Bud Black exchange lineup cards at home plate. Once upon the '80s, both were fine players in their own right. Black got the upper hand more often than not, particularly as their careers progressed:
Don Mattingly vs. Bud Black
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Clayton Kershaw starts for the Dodgers on this Thursday evening in downtown San Diego. He won the NL Cy Young Award in 2011. How have recent NL Cy Young Award winners fared in their debuts the following season?
GSc is Bill James' Game Score, which measures a starting pitcher's effectiveness based on a variety of criteria. The total for this column is actually an average.
Calling Johnson's Cy Young Award in 1999 “recent” is a stretch, but I've included it for two reasons:
Johnson is the most recent to lose his debut the following season (Arizona got blanked, 8-0, by the Dodgers' Hideo Nomo, who spun a four-hitter and didn't allow a runner to get past first base until there were two out in the seventh inning). Before that, you have to go back to Tom Glavine in 1999. Not that they needed help, but as we'll see, these guys have benefited from being pitted against uninspired opponents.
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The game begins innocently enough. Both starters breeze through the first two innings. Kershaw needs just 20 pitches, while the Padres' Edinson Volquez uses 24. Both men struggle in the third—Volquez with his control, Kershaw with a stomach flu that was supposed to have kept him from pitching today. He is lifted for “pinch-hitter” Adam Kennedy to start the fourth.
This is good news for Padres hitters, who were being abused by a very sick man. Volquez, for his part, sticks around and implodes. He allows two runs in the fourth on two singles, four walks (two with the bases loaded), and a wild pitch. His fastball sits in the mid-90s (as it does all evening), but of the 34 pitches he throws, only 14 are strikes. He is fortunate to escape further damage when a second potential wild pitch is pounced upon by catcher Nick Hundley, who fires to Volquez covering the plate to nab a streaking Andre Ethier.
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Did someone say “uninspired opponents”? Here's how starting pitchers facing the defending NL Cy Young Award winner did in the latter's debut the following year:
We're omitting 2004 here because the previous year's winner was Gagne, who won as a reliever and didn't face an opposing starter in his debut. Also, how cool is it that Gagne appears on this list as well, as a starter? Well, maybe not cool, but odd anyway.
Without wishing to detract from the Cy Young Award winners, this list—with the notable exceptions of Gagne and Oswalt—reads like Who's Who: Innings Eaters of America. For grins, here are the respective lines of the Cy Young Award winners of 1999-2011 and opposite number in their next season's debut (Gagne again omitted):
I don't know about you, but where I come from, that's kind of messed up.
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Yonder Alonso makes his Padres debut, batting sixth. Acquired along with Volquez in the deal that sent Mat Latos to Cincinnati, he is being asked to fill the shoes of the man who failed to fill the shoes of the man before him. Not that Anthony Rizzo was given much of a chance in San Diego, but it should be easier for Alonso to replace Rizzo than it was for Rizzo to replace Adrian Gonzalez.
Naturally Alonso wears number 23, as Gonzalez did. Because you want to invite those comparisons.
In his first at-bat for the Padres, Alonso strikes out swinging against Kershaw with two out in the second inning. When the ball skips past Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, Alonso breaks for first base and is thrown out with surprising ease. The note on my scorecard reads, “slow.”
In his next trip to the plate, Alonso hits a sharp grounder back through the middle. The ball glances off of pitcher Josh Lindblom's glove and to the left of shortstop Dee Gordon, who makes a diving stop behind second base, spins, and fires to first. It's a terrific play but one that doesn't result in an out with almost anyone else running down the line. The note on my scorecard reads, “slower.”
We used to joke that Adrian Gonzalez ran with a piano strapped to his back. Alonso runs with Gonzalez and a piano strapped to his back.
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San Diego is not a suburb of Los Angeles, but you could forgive someone who didn't know better for thinking otherwise. Petco Park is packed with Dodgers fans who ventured south to chant “M-V-P” every time 2011 runner-up Matt Kemp strides to the plate.
In the eighth, they are rewarded when Kemp swats a high, lazy fastball from Brad Brach onto the top of the auxiliary scoreboard in right field. The Dodgers lead, 5-1. After the game, Kemp notes, “It's a good feeling for our fans to drive two hours down to San Diego and fill up the stadium.”
In Section 300, the upper tier directly behind home plate, drunken skirmishes erupt. Fans are escorted from the premises. This is as inevitable as the ceremonial first pitch (thrown today by longtime Padres announcer and real combat veteran Jerry Coleman). Such behavior isn't a point of pride for anyone, although the “fans” that aren't removed believe it is, slapping high fives with one another as their buddies are hauled off to contemplate the consequences of their actions... most likely a rehashing of the story to their high-five-slapping buddies.
In the bottom of the eighth, Cameron Maybin launches a Kenley Jansen cutter off the third-deck facade of the Western Metal Supply Co. building beyond left field. Although Maybin's offensive game revolves around hitting grounders and running like crazy, every once in a great while he does something that reminds you why we said in BP2007 that “Maybin both looks and plays a little bit like Eric Davis.”
Maybin's two-run homer travels an estimated 445 feet, seventh-longest in Petco Park history. The score is 5-3, which is how the game ends.
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As in their playing days, Mattingly has the early upper hand against Black as manager. With his club's Opening Day victory, Mattingly has won 14 of their first 19 matchups. And although expectations are low for these two teams in 2012, both skippers (one Las Vegas bookmaker's contention that Black will be the first manager fired this season notwithstanding) figure to play a role in helping return their respective franchises to prominence.
Each will do so in his own way, although their styles are not dissimilar. Mattingly drew praise in BP2012 for keeping his charges from abandoning ship last year when it would have been easy to do so:
He kept a poorly designed team 10 games under .500 at the All-Star break invested enough to go 41-28 in the second half despite a sea of empty seats, a growing reaction to the maelstrom of McCourt misery that continuously threatened to overshadow the team. Most teams would have packed it in for a 95-loss season. This one didn't, and the credit for that has to land somewhere.
Black, meanwhile, earned kudos for maintaining an even keel (some would argue too even) in the face of adversity:
His laid-back personality makes him a natural fit for the Padres. One of Black's strengths is his ability to listen and discuss. Watching him argue with umpires is fascinating. There are no histrionics; he just strolls out of the dugout and chats with them as one might chat with old friends over tea and miniature cucumber sandwiches.
Personalities are wonderful, but at some point these men must prove themselves capable of leading winners at the big-league level. If they do, Black may yet earn the chance to balance his record against Mattingly, just as he did in their playing days.