The minor leagues can be funny. In Albuquerque, I saw a fly ball kick out of the glove of Dodgers prospect Trayvon Robinson and over the left-field fence for a home run. I saw former Padres right-hander Tim Redding face San Diego native (Hilltop High School) Mike Jacobs.
In the first of two games I caught in Tucson, catcher Luis Martinez stole second base on a throw back to the pitcher. I didn’t actually see the play, but when I looked up, Martinez was cruising into second base and everyone else was kind of standing around doing nothing.
In the second game, as Salt Lake right-hander Eric Junge was making his warmup tosses before the bottom of the first, the umpires convened for a little conference. Then they chatted with Bees skipper Keith Johnson. Then they had Junge remove his glove, which catcher Kevin Richardson replaced with what from my vantage point (again, just over the third-base dugout) appeared to be an exact duplicate.
Everyone seemed happy. Junge, being the cagey veteran that he is (at 34, just a few months younger than Friday night’s starter, Brian Lawrence), didn’t let this faze him one bit.
That Salt Lake rotation is old (says the even older guy). Of their 52 starts this season, 23 (44.2%) have been made by pitchers in their thirties.
Meanwhile, left-hander Wade LeBlanc got the call for the home team and… well, he faced 27 batters and allowed 14 hits. You won’t believe this, but he was a bit unlucky. Part of it was his own doing, as he often worked behind in the count, which is a poor strategy for a guy with a mediocre fastball in a bandbox.
I mean, it’s a poor strategy for anyone, but someone like LeBlanc really can’t afford to deploy it. Hitters made contact, and although it wasn’t always solid, putting the ball in play is half the battle. Everything found a hole. (Resist…)
The one well-struck ball was Richardson’s grand slam that sent LeBlanc to the showers. Richardson wasn’t getting around on LeBlanc’s fastball. In the first, he singled to right; in the third, he lofted a lazy fly ball in the same direction. But with one out in the fifth, Richardson smacked a 2-2 pitch that I’m assuming from movement was a changeup over the left-center-field fence.
LeBlanc appeared to be frustrated by a few borderline ball/strike calls (he wasn’t the only one; former Padres farmhand Paul McAnulty, now with the Bees, got into it a bit with the plate umpire after being called out on strikes in the third). LeBlanc also didn’t get a lot of help from his defense.
Cedric Hunter, starting in center field, got a late break on a soft line drive with one out in the first that fell in for a single. Two batters later, McAnulty hit a sharp grounder toward first that Anthony Rizzo sidestepped. It wasn’t an easy play but it looked makeable. Next thing you know, the Bees have scored three runs and the rout is on.
At the plate, Rizzo drew a walk, popped up to third base, grounded a single through the middle, and struck out swinging. He also was batting when Aaron Cunningham tried to steal second in the first on a 3-1 count. Cunningham was called out, although I thought he beat the throw. So did manager Terry Kennedy, who had the same view I did, only closer. That helped turn a potentially big inning into a one-spot.
Cunningham also showed his one glaring defensive deficiency, a weak arm, twice skipping balls back to the infield from left field. As he admits, speaking of his time as an amateur player in Alaska, throwing has always been a trouble spot:
I was bad. I couldn’t throw. I was a bad infielder. I don’t think I was terrible with the glove, but I just couldn’t throw well.
Cunningham hits the ball hard and runs well. With a better glove, he could have a Chris Denorfia type career. But Cunningham is 25 years old and, like the two men patrolling center field at Tucson — Hunter and Luis Durango — lacks a clearly defined role in this organization.
Speaking of guys who hit the ball hard but who struggle on defense, Jesus Guzman went 2-for-4. One of the outs, a fly ball to center to end the sixth, was a very loud out. He hit a 3-2 pitch off the end of his bat and it carried to the wall. Granted, this is Tucson, but Guzman can hit. He reminds me a little of Pedro Guerrero, although Guzman won’t have anywhere near Guerrero’s career.
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The other thing I wanted to mention about Tucson is its viability as a long-term Triple-A solution if the whole Escondido thing doesn’t work. For a town that didn’t know it would have an affiliated ballclub until very late in the game, fans have done a nice job of supporting the T-Padres (and give credit to the folks in charge, Mike and Pattie Feder, for hustling to make it all happen).
The ballpark experience is pretty no-frills, but considering the lack of time to prepare, this isn’t surprising. What may be surprising are the value ($10.50 for seats behind the plate as of this writing) and the knowledgeable fan base.
On Friday, we sat next to a woman who recently moved to town from the Pacific Northwest. She noticed I was keeping score and struck up a conversation. When I mentioned that we were visiting from San Diego, she immediately asked me about the Escondido situation.
This woman is not your typical fan. Come to find out, she’s a huge Mariners fan who saw Ken Griffey Jr. play in his pro debut at Bellingham back in 1987. Still, the fact that I sat next to some random person who was that in tune to the potential future of this ballclub gave me pause.
For largely selfish reasons, I’ve been in favor of seeing the Padres Triple-A affiliate come to Escondido. That said, with finances being what they are and given that folks in Tucson have warmed to a team they didn’t know would exist, I wonder if keeping it out there — not as close as the San Diego front office might like, but still closer than Portland — might make more sense?