After suffering in the NL West cellar, the Padres see the first signs of a bright future in a new stadium
As the padres stumbled through the worst first half of a season in franchise history, even general manager Kevin Towers, one of the team's most vocal cheerleaders, was expecting the worst. "May was awful," says Towers of his team's 6-23 record that month, which led to a National League-worst 35-61 mark at the All-Star break. "I remember telling my wife that this team could make a run at the '62 Mets [for most losses in a season, 120]."
At week's end the Padres (58-84) still had the worst record in the league, but lately they had provided an optimistic preview of the future. Sparked by the emergence of 23-year-old third baseman Sean Burroughs and the recent arrival of leftfielder Brian Giles, the Padres were playoff spoilers in winning four straight series—against the Expos, the Diamondbacks (twice) and the Astros—between Aug. 22 and Sept. 3.
"There's nothing last place about that team," says Houston reliever Brad Lidge after the Astros split six games with the Padres over the last two weeks. "They're playing hard, as if the season just started. Top to bottom, the lineup they have now is as good as any out there."
The recent run of success coincides with manager Bruce Bochy's Aug. 22 decision to move Burroughs from fifth or sixth in the batting order to the leadoff spot. Though the 6'2", 200-pound Burroughs isn't your typical leadoff man—he had five stolen bases in six attempts in 129 games—he was hitting .389 as a leadoff hitter and had a .492 on-base percentage, and the Padres were scoring nearly two more runs per game with Burroughs batting first. "The main thing for a leadoff guy is to get on base, and that's what Sean does," says Padres hitting coach Dave Magadan. "He doesn't steal bases, yet he looks like he's tailor-made for the slot."
In Giles, who arrived in a trade on Aug. 26 with the Pirates for lefthander Oliver Perez, outfielder Jason Bay and a player to be named, San Diego got one of the most overlooked stars in the game. The left-handed power hitter is the only major leaguer to hit .298 or higher with at least 35 home runs in each of the last four seasons. Through Sunday Giles was batting .364 with seven RBIs and 10 runs scored through his first nine games for the Padres. "It's always been my dream to play for this organization," says Giles, who has an off-season home in San Diego and grew up in the area. "It's especially exciting to be here now because this team can be very good very soon."
With a $294 million ballpark opening in the downtown area next spring, San Diego management is now willing to boost its $479 million payroll (second lowest in the league) to improve the team. In addition to dealing for the 32-year-old Giles, who has two years remaining on a five-year, $45 million contract, Towers has been told by owner John Moores that he will likely be able to add one or two marquee free agents this winter. The general manager plans to pursue a frontline starting catcher (the Braves' Javy Lopez, the Marlins' Ivan Rodriguez and the Red Sox' Jason Varitek could be available) as well as a No. 1 starter (the Braves' Greg Maddux, the White Sox' Bartolo Colon and the Phillies' Kevin Millwood are among those expected to be on the market).
The pieces are falling into place for the Padres, who play 14 of their final 20 games against contending teams, including seven against the Dodgers, who are in the wild-card chase. "There's a lot to be excited about for next year, with the new stadium and the momentum we'll have going in," says San Diego centerfielder Mark Kotsay, "but until then, we've still got games to win."
Tigers' Season of Futility
Last, and Certainly Least
The first of what could be several dubious achievements by the 2003 Tigers happened last Friday when lefthander Mike Maroth became the first pitcher in 23 years to lose 20 games in a season. By allowing eight earned runs in three innings of an 8-6 loss to the Blue Jays, the 26-year-old Maroth saw his record fall to 6-20 and his ERA climb to 5.75 in 29 starts. "I'm going to overcome this," Maroth said afterward.