Padres general manager Kevin Towers was gobbling up what he calls the " Rolaids and Turns combo platter" as he watched the Cardinals score four runs to take a 7-3 lead against his team in the bottom of the eighth of their April 5 game. As Towers started for the clubhouse, Devil Rays scout Monk Williams stopped him in his tracks. "Don't go anywhere," Williams told him. "Your guys are gonna come back."
Towers heeded the words of the wizened scout, and sure enough, the Padres scored five runs in the top of the ninth to win 8-7. "When somebody from another organization senses that kind of chemistry on your club," Towers says, "then you begin to believe that magic can happen."
The victory was one of four dramatic comeback wins San Diego already had at week's end, including three in games when it trailed by two or more runs entering the ninth. Last season the Padres finished 5-81 in games in which they were behind going into the ninth. "A year ago when teams got a couple of runs against us early, we'd sink in our seats and think, Wow, can we come back?" third baseman Ken Caminiti says. "This year we're always wondering, Who's going to be the hero tonight?"
By winning 11 of its last 12 games before Sunday's rainout in Pittsburgh, San Diego improved its record to 14-3, the best start in the majors and by far the best in franchise history. "We know it's still early," manager Bruce Bochy says, "but a good start can really lay the foundation for a great season."
During this torrid April, a new Padres protagonist has starred in virtually every game. The much-improved San Diego pitching staff, led by ace righthander Kevin Brown, has the seventh-best ERA (3.91) in the league—the Padres were 13th a year ago—and has already produced more shutouts this season (three) than in all of '97 (two). The offense has not only featured clutch hits horn the usual suspects, like Caminiti, eight-time batting champ Tony Gwynn and centerfielder Steve Finley, but also has gotten timely contributions from such unexpected sources as bench players Archi Cianfrocco and Andy Sheets.
Still, the most dramatic comeback story belongs to leftfielder Greg Vaughn, who struggled mightily after coming to the Padres in a deal with the Brewers at the '96 trade deadline. During a miserable '97 season, Vaughn batted .216 with 18 homers (he'd hit 41 in '96), lost his job to Rickey Henderson, got traded to the Yankees and then was returned to sender when he couldn't pass a physical because of a damaged right shoulder. "He became the scapegoat for the bad season," Caminiti says, "and he suffered a lot because he's the kind of guy who hears every boo."
At spring training this year Vaughn began working regularly with Gwynn, who lectured him on delaying his swing and striking with quick hands. The advice has helped: At week's end Vaughn was batting .269 with live home runs and 10 RBIs. Two of his homers have been game-winners. Vaughn credits his resurgence to a combination of factors ranging from his regular tune-ups with Gwynn to wearing his old Brewers uniform number—23. "All I know is that I feel a great sense of relief," says Vaughn. "Last year was a matter of survival, but now I'm at peace with myself."
Finding Paradise In Milwaukee
Maybe Brewers rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz should thank Mariners reliever Paul Spoljaric, or, as Burnitz refers to him, "That dude, the lefty, who used to be with Toronto." While playing for the Indians in July 1996, Burnitz, who had just cracked the lineup, was hit on the elbow by a Spoljaric pitch and knocked out of the game. Burnitz's replacement, Brian Giles, proceeded to hit so proficiently that Cleveland decided it no longer needed Burnitz. Or, in Burnitz-speak, "That dude smoked me, and Giles got in there and just raked for the rest of the year. And that was it for me." A month later the Indians shipped Burnitz to Milwaukee for utilityman Kevin Seitzer. Finally, six years after the Mets selected him with the 17th pick in the draft, Burnitz had a chance to play every day.