Notes from the Padres “Taco Train”

Credit: AP Photo

As the Taco Train pulled out of the station in the last ten days picking up passengers and headed to the New Jerusalem, it’s not too early to compare notes, to heed scribblings from the random and assorted. As of this writing, the Padres stand five and six, a minor miracle considering we opened with four on the road at the high rolling Dodgers, three at home against the wild card Giants, and three more a mile high in Denver against the chic crowd’s pick to make a run, the Rockies. Nine out of 10 national media scribes would have picked us one and nine, maybe two and eight, through such a thicket. Five and six isn’t the stuff of legend, but it does bode well for the journey.

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It’s nice to have a face of the franchise play like the face of the franchise.

When the Padres splashed over $80 million for six years to Wil Myers to man first base and be the face of the franchise, there were few critics. One might quibble he’d only produced one exceptional, injury-free year but the counter argument to that is if he’d produced another, the price might have gone up 50% or even more. As a young team trying to build something that will last, you must plant your flag somewhere. Myers is a good a place as any.

But I’m not trying to undersell him. He may be the perfect place to lay our foundation. His goofball, good-natured, laid back manner fits San Diego perfectly, and he seems to have genuinely bought into the long-term project of the Taco Train. Oh yea, he can rake too. He’s off to a .400 / .419 / .825 start with an OPS of 1.244. That’ll work. Nothing like the face of the franchise carrying the team right out of the gate.

Then there’s the cycle he hit Monday night. When Myers came up for his last at-bat, anyone watching the game was wondering: Can he do it? Can he hit for a triple to complete the cycle? Can he produce some magic? Watching him uncoil out of the box after he’d laced it into the left center field gap, you could tell he wanted that triple just as much as every die-hard fan wanted it. That means something in the way you root for a player. He was trying so hard he almost fell coming around second, stumbling but barely holding himself upright. He showed up at third with that big, goofy, somewhat sheepish grin on his face acting like, “Well, that was cool.” Not a bad way to start the year with only the second cycle in Padre history.

(As an aside. Don Orsillo’s TV call of the triple was beautiful, but if you want absolute magic, dial-up Eduardo Ortega’s call in Spanish from the Padres’ Spanish-language broadcast. Even if you don’t understand a word, it’s priceless.)

On Wednesday, Wil was a guest on Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s baseball show on MLB Network, discussing his early season exploits. Mad Dog asked him if he had any private goals for the year. Myers said it was to play all 162 games. While the merits of playing all 162 can be debated, and it certainly might be best for Wil to get a day off from time to time, the example Wil is attempting to set with the kids, both on the field and off, is exactly what the Padres were hoping for when they signed him. It’s nice for the face of the franchise to have such a comely face.

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Lou Brock and Paul Bunyan

Manuel Margot has thrown down the gauntlet. He seems to be saying: I may be a rookie but I’m the best center fielder in the NL West. While Charlie Blackmon may have something to say about that, and a healthy A.J. Pollock is pretty damn good, and Joc Pederson can go yard with the best of them, 10 games in, Margot is at least making people take notice. Obviously, it’s a horribly small sample size. Manuel is unlikely to continue to square up balls all over the yard on such a consistent basis and no doubt the holes in his swing will be found and he’ll have to adjust. But talk about an eye-popping start!! And he hasn’t even had a chance to make any exceptional defensive plays, which is supposedly his strong suit.

Credit: Baseball America

He’s started .325 / .372 / .650 with an OPS of 1.022. Surprisingly he only has one stolen base, but this is in no small part because he has often been circling the bases after a home run or already standing on second with a double. He appears to be a legitimate Rickey Henderson-like threat at the top of the order, though comparing him to the greatest leadoff hitter of all time after ten games is sort of like comparing me writing about baseball to Hemingway writing about boxing.

What you can put him in the company of is another Hall of Famer, Lou Brock. Margot is the first rookie to lead off a game with a home run twice in his first 9 games of his rookie year since Brock did it in 1963. That’s heavy company to keep. Lou didn’t turn out to be a real power threat, but he did turn out to be an extraordinary baseball player and leadoff man who walked away with multiple WS titles amongst other personal silverware. Manuel is a keeper, a potential rookie of the year. (Score one for Preller and the Padre front office.)

Hunter Renfroe hasn’t been as electric, but hasn’t looked overmatched. We all know that last September he put one on the roof of the Western Metal Supply Building and this year he’s already sent a couple of shots over the wall. He has Paul Bunyan strength. In Colorado, he flipped one over the wall down the right field line as if playing a game of whiffle ball, and then rifled one so hard off the right field wall he had to settle for a single. Renfroe has serious power.

He’s started off .250 / .250 / .450 with an OPS of .700. Hunter has one huge problem. He doesn’t walk. His has a poor batter’s eye. He has yet to draw a base on balls and the more pitchers recognize this, the more they will make him chase bad pitches. In the long run, that is likely to prove unsustainable for his career. The Padres recognize this, of course, and are working with him, but an adjustment like that is tough to make in the Major Leagues. We shall see.

Still, I wanted to tell a story about Renfroe some of you may have heard. He was in the Dominican, I believe at the Padre camp, and sitting around a campfire one night with a bunch of the Padre prospects. A huge bug of some sort, maybe a spider but nobody knew what, came scampering across which had even the normally used to such thing Latins scrambling for cover. Hunter surveyed the scene, sought out the bug, grabbed it, and then to the amazement of all concerned, ate it. That’s our Hunter. A man of no fear and great faith. In the end, I’m hoping he’ll fit right in with the Padres. (Keep the faith!!)

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The Taco Train runs on scrap and junk

The standard refrain regarding the Padres this year was that we would have “the worst starting pitching in all of baseball.” It may well turn out to be true. Certainly, after the first game when our “ace”, Jhoulys Chacin, served up nine runs in three innings, the words seemed prophetic. It seemed it was going to be a long year.

Credit: Getty Images

It may still be a long year… a very, very long year, but in two of the next nine games, the staff has thrown shutouts and kept us in every single game but one. We’ve already lost two of our starters to (hopefully) short-term injuries, but working off the scrapheap, the pitching has held firm. It’s often said but not well understood how much credit must be given to long-time Padre pitching coach, Darren Balsley, for the positive efforts of San Diego pitching. He seems to get the most of whatever he has to work with, even if it’s – to use a Taco Train term – junk. Jarred Cosart, one of the pitchers who stepped up when Trevor Cahill went down with a back injury, called Balsley “a genius”. He wasn’t speaking in hyperbole.

Chacin came back to outduel Madison Bumgarner. The pitching staff (in a sure sign of the apocalypse) gave up only six runs in three games in Coors Field. The Pads won two of those games and could have easily swept. Even Jared Weaver – he of the 84-mph fastball – got into the act. If Balsley is not only a genius but a miracle worker, and the staff can stitch together 162 games of reasonable efforts, the Padres are going to win some games and surprise some people. They have the bullpen (they have a great bullpen). If the starters muddle their way through, it’ll be fun.

It’s a big “if”, and again, ten games don’t amount to a hill of beans. But if Balsley can work his magic, they may just turn out to be magical beans.

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Long live the scrappy Taco Train

Midweek, Arizona GM, Mike Hazen, was on Mad Dog as well. His Arizona Diamondbacks are off to a flying start and he was talking them up. The conversation turned to the NL West in general and Hazen started off by saying the Dodgers, with the biggest payroll in baseball, were exceptional, the Giants were probably just as good and that a lot of experts thought the Rockies would surprise and contend this year as well.

Mad Dog started to pipe up and I could hear in my head what he was about to say. “At least you have the Padres to kick around.” But Hazen cut him off and kept on, “And the Padres are going to be scrappy. They’re not going to be anybody’s pushovers. I believe we play in the toughest division in baseball.”

Scrappy. Underdogs are scrappy. Teams that don’t give up are scrappy. Fighters are scrappy.

Bad teams aren’t scrappy. Bad teams roll over, give up. Bad teams throw in the towel.

Andy Green comes from the Diamondbacks organization and is a legend there. He was manager of several minor league teams for them, all of which won championships, and Tony La Russa, the Diamondbacks’ head of baseball operations and a Hall of Famer in his own right, practically cried when San Diego stole him right out from under his nose. The boys in Arizona know Andy Green’s teams play scrappy, tough, hard-nosed. He gets the most out of the talent he’s given. That may not mean much in the end, who knows. We really DO play in the toughest division in baseball, top to bottom. But we will scrap. The Taco Train will roll down the tracks using whatever it can at its disposal to get to its desired location. The Taco Train will scrap. Five and five is way, way, way too early to predict 81 and 81 or anything above or even remotely close, but the Padres will scrap 162, even if the face of the franchise must sit a few and our potential rookie of the year must play like it’s 1963.

Long live the scrappy Taco Train.

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Scott Olesen
I was at the Kirby/Gomez "no hitter" Curse game. I was at the Holy Roller game. Though I love the man and what he did for the Padres, I cried when they retired Steve Garvey's number. By my estimation I witnessed in person, watched on tv or listened on the radio to over 3,000 of Tony's 3,141 hits. Jerry Coleman's initials aren't J.C. for no reason.

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