Padres' unlikely run just keeps going

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 14, 2010

Thousands of words have been written trying to explain the Padres’ success. Millions more might not do the trick.

How many contenders experiment with a new leadoff man in Game No. 134? How many rely on a shortstop who had been moved off the position at the start of the season? How many feature only a small group of veterans, one of whom is a hellacious 42-year-old pinch-hitter?

Aaron Cunningham, Miguel Tejada, Matt Stairs. Those were three of the Padres’ many heroes in their 7-6 victory over the Rockies on Tuesday night. “Unlikely” would be too weak an adjective to describe the trio. “Unreal” might not be too strong.

The Padres looked just about finished in losing three of four games to the Giants at home last weekend. Now here they are, bolstering their postseason chances, puncturing the Rockies’, defying the odds once more.

“So many people continue to doubt us — and we love that,” infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. said. “We feel like we’re playing with house money. Nobody picked us to be here. We just go out every day and let the chips fall where they may.”

Oh, the chips are falling, all right. Challengers, too.

The Rockies had won 10 straight games before dropping the first two in this series. They had gone 11-4 this season against the Padres. But suddenly, they are 3-1/2 games back in both the NL West and wild-card races, trailing two teams in each with 17 games to play.

The merry Pads, meanwhile, gathered around a television in the visitors’ clubhouse at Coors Field to watch the Dodgers complete their 1-0 victory over the Giants late Tuesday night — a victory that extended the Padres’ lead over the Giants to 1-1/2 games.

The teams will meet on the final weekend of the season in San Francisco. The Padres are sure to produce more drama, both good and bad, before then. Tuesday night’s game was your typical Coors epic. Both clubs scored three runs in the final two innings. The game ended with the tying and winning runs on base.

Heath Bell secured the final four outs for his 29th straight save and 42nd overall, and heaven knows it wasn’t easy. He escaped a first-and-third, one-out jam in the eighth by retiring the Rockies’ cleanup hitter, Troy Tulowitzki. And that was nothing compared to the ninth.

In the top half, Bell batted for the first time this season, lining out to the opposite field with the bases loaded to end the inning. In the bottom half, four of the Rockies’ first five hitters reached against him — the first two on ringing doubles — to cut the Padres’ lead to one run.

Eric Young Jr., the Rockies’ speedy leadoff man, batted with one out, runners on first and second and the crowd of 40,532 roaring for another comeback. Tejada fielded a sharp groundball to his left, his momentum carrying him toward second. Rather than flip the ball to second baseman David Eckstein, he hit the bag himself and threw to first for the game-ending double play.

Padres manager Bud Black said that Tejada, a shortstop for his first 13 seasons, had made that play “a thousand times.” Tejada said he anticipated the sequence before it happened. But hey, who even thought he would be playing short in a pennant race?

The Orioles signed the 36-year-old as a free agent last offseason with the understanding that he would move to third. The Padres did not intend for him to play regularly at short when they traded for him in July. Injuries to Eckstein and Hairston, combined with regression by Everth Cabrera, left them with little choice.

Cunningham batting leadoff requires an even larger stretch of the imagination. Perhaps you’ve heard of Cunningham — the Diamondbacks sent him to the A’s in the Dan Haren deal and the A’s sent him to the Padres in the Kevin Kouzmanoff trade. But the 24-year-old outfielder has yet to distinguish himself in the majors.

The Pads demoted him three different this season, and before Tuesday night he had only 96 at-bats on the year. Black, though, already had tried eight different leadoff hitters. Cunningham gets on base, offers some pop, had two hits in the series opener. There was no better alternative, nothing to lose.

Sure enough, Cunningham lined the first pitch of the game for a single, then followed with another single and a double, all in the first four innings. Black did not need to deliberate on his lineup for Wednesday’s series finale. Cunningham would hit leadoff, he said.

None of this was expected. Little of it makes sense.

The Padres, after scoring just twice in their final three games against the Giants, have rallied at Coors, producing 13 runs in two games. Truth be told, they even could have blown out the Rockies on Tuesday night.

Right-hander Jon Garland was brilliant, allowing one earned run in seven innings. Stairs’ third pinch-hit homer of the season — and 22nd of his career, extending his major-league record — gave them a 6-3 lead in the eighth.

Of course, nothing is ever easy at Coors, and Bell said he lacked his usual stuff, bringing only his “C” game. But in the end, he got the groundball he needed.

The over-the-hill shortstop made the play. The out-of-nowhere leadoff hitter finished 3 for 5 with two runs scored. The ancient pinch-hitter, never comfortable talking about himself, left the clubhouse before reporters entered.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 Padres.

Unconventional. Inexplicable. And still in first place.

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