I hear the train a-comin’
Rollin’ round the bend
I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since I don’t know when
– Johnny Cash
The Taco Train has had quite a fortnight.
It began two Sundays ago when the man Andy Green described as the unquestioned leader of the team, Clayton Richards, spun a complete game against the Arizona Diamondbacks resulting in a 5-1 Padre victory. The game came on the heels of two games in which two Padre starting pitchers had given up a combined 15 runs in less than four innings, and beyond that, a five-game losing streak and a run of ten losses out of 12. Passengers were exiting the Taco Train, no matter their ultimate destination, as the worst forebodings of the 2017 Padres were coming true right before our eyes.
Richards put an emphatic end to it, at least for the moment, like any good leader should. A much-needed off day followed, and despite it being a travel day back east, it did the boys a world of wonders.
You couldn’t, however, tell from the first game versus the Mets. The Train came to a screeching halt when Jhoulys Chacin couldn’t get out of the first inning, giving up seven runs. In three out of four games, Padres’ starting pitchers had been beyond brutal. The six-game road trip was in immediate peril.
In game 2 the Pads quickly found themselves down 5-1, but the team’s veteran offensive leaders, Yangervis Solarte and Wil Myers, each lashed 2-RBI hits to tie the score. At this point the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen was in full retreat, and in the eighth, Hunter Renfroe turned a fastball around 440 feet into the second deck to give the Padres the lead. Renfroe’s May was one of the bright lights of the Train during its gloomy, meandering ride, as he tightened up his strike zone, and as a result slashed .255/.358/.511 during the month with five home runs and 17 RBI. (Next up for Hunter? Playing right field. With one of the best arms in the game he could ultimately become one of MLB’s best right fielders, but he has light years to go in this regard.)
Still, the best was saved for last. Green, hoping to use struggling closer Brandon Maurer in a lower leverage situation to get him back on track, ran him out there in the eighth, and turned to all-purpose, wunderkind lefty Brad Hand in the ninth to get the save. Hand immediately loaded the bases, giving up two singles and a walk, and all the “Embrace the Tank” signs were once again being prepared for cyber and digital launch. But Brad Hand is the best all-around reliever in baseball not named Andrew Miller. He didn’t look fazed, and while usually my heart would be hurting hoping for the best but knowing the worst was to come, in this case I was confident Hand would come through.
And did he ever, striking out Rene Rivera and Curtis Granderson, and then getting the final batter to pop out. A cool cucumber, Mr. Hand, justifying Green’s confidence. The Yankees backed up the truck when they traded Miller to the Indians last year. Hand isn’t Miller, but he is Miller Lite. He can pitch in the sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth, gets out both righties and lefties, and can give you multiple innings at a time. I don’t want to trade Brad Hand. I’m a romantic. I want him here in 2019, 2020, and beyond, winning championships with the Taco Train. But if we must trade him in the name of selling high and maximizing the prospect haul, we should at minimum back up the SUV, if not the pickup.
Next game was the highly anticipated debut of right-handed flame thrower, Dinelson Lamet, the Padres’ number ten prospect. Many wondered if Lamet, due to occasional control problems, was ready for The Show, but the Padres, due to injuries in their rotation, were desperate and had nowhere else to turn. Lamet took exactly one batter to make an impression.
For weeks the Mets’ young leadoff man, Michael Conforto, had been one of baseball’s hottest hitters. He had six hits in the first two games of the series, wearing the Padres out. Lamet’s first pitch was easy gas, 95 mph. Conforto fouled it off. Lamet next threw a high slider which Conforto swung through. Then Lamet, with the ease of a lazy Saturday morning, flipped a 98-mph heater up to the plate. High cheese, come and get it big boy. Conforto never had a chance, swinging after the ball was already in the catcher’s glove. Uno, dos, adios. Sit down, Conforto. Lamet would strike him out three times total in five innings of work.
He struck out eight Mets overall in a dazzling debut. He was far from perfect, but he was eye-opening. And the Padres got him a W, a 4-3 victory. Hand got his second save. The Padres took the series against the woebegone Mets and suddenly had won three out of four. The Taco Train had taken on some solar energy and was picking up speed.
The Nationals have been the best team in the National League the first two months of the season. The Padres faced their two aces, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, to open up and struck out a combined 28 times. They never had a chance, losing both contests. The less said about these games the better. Overall the Padres’ offense largely has been abysmal, and they lead the world in strikeouts, so neither of these outcomes was particularly surprising.
They could have folded up shop and gone back to their old ways, but in the third game, with the help of some new faces, the Padres rebounded against a more pedestrian pitcher, ex-Padre farmhand Joe Ross. The Padres picked up veteran utilityman, Chase d’Arnoud, earlier in the week, and playing short he had immediately paid some dividends in the Met series with his glove. Against the Nationals he came through with a clutch two-out, two-RBI single to permanently extend the lead, and in the seventh made a dazzling play off a Ryan Zimmerman smash to save a run and potentially a larger rally. Erick Aybar, the Padres’ 34-year-old regular shortstop, has obvious limitations based on his age, diminished quickness, and even his size. He’s been a steadying influence on many of the younger Latin players in the Padre clubhouse and on the infield where he commonly makes the routine play. He rarely, if ever, makes the spectacular play, however, especially when needed most, and d’Arnoud made more of them in his first week than Aybar has made all year. Without d’Arnoud they don’t beat the Nationals in the final game of the series.
The other newcomer, Franchy Cordero, the Padres’ number 23-rated prospect, made his first-ever start, collected his first two hits, scored the fifth run of a 5-3 victory while making all the plays in center field. By the end of the week the comp being made of Cordero was to Gregory Polanco of the Pirates in terms of tools and ceiling, a 5-tool talent. All I have to say is: if this is our number 23 prospect, let’s bring up the other 22 and make a run for the playoffs! By the end of the week Cordero had made five straight starts and provided a spark in each, and between he and Lamet the second wave of talent has hit the Pacific shores of Padre Land following the first wave of Renfroe, Margot, Hedges, et al. Sweet smell of paradise.
A 3-3 road trip and four out of seven set the stage for a three-game home series against the World Champion Cubbies. If you’re reading this, you already know how that played out. I watched and listened to a lot of national press following this series, and uniformly the question centered on what was wrong with the Cubs? Were they really in trouble? Was this all just a World Series hangover or was there something more going on?
Nary a word about Lamet or Cordero, Perdomo going seven strong innings, Renfroe with a .511 slugging percentage in May, or anything else about the Taco Train. Which, from the national press’ point of view, is as it should be. Seven wins out of ten by the “worst team in baseball” isn’t cause to stop the presses and focus attention. Nobody cares about the Padres in any market except for San Diego, and even there we’re second fiddle to a team that no longer calls San Diego home (the Chargers). We’re surrounded by the ocean to the west, the border to the south, the desert to the east and the City of Angels to the north but we’re taking the train all the way and back again. Passengers are hopping back on board, but the national press will be the last to know and will be even later to care.
Which brings me to the last game as of this writing, Friday night’s 8-5 conquest of the Rockies. We got down 3-0 and 4-1 and just ten days ago I might’ve written us off, time to sit back and enjoy the individual young talent, forgetting the score and the result. But for now, anyway, things have changed. The game-changer Cordero smashed one off the hand of the Rockies’ pitcher, German Marquez. Marquez said he was okay but immediately started elevating fastballs and Hedges and Solarte both took him deep to give the Padres a lead they never relinquished.
Yet another young Padre had yet another extraordinary game for himself. Allen Cordoba – 21 years old, Rule 5 draftee, veteran of the Appalachian League and nothing else – while batting leadoff had a 3-hit, 2-RBI night with a sacrifice fly, falling a home run short of the cycle. No matter how many Padre pundits weigh in on the overnight rise of Cordoba from Rookie League ball to the Major Leagues, none have captured the incredulousness this rise should muster in each of us. My experience is limited, and my memory worse, but I believe we are in uncharted territory with Cordoba’s leap from rookie ball to the majors in one fell swoop. The only thing conceivably similar is going straight from college ball to the majors – which Padre great and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield did in 1977 for those old enough to recall – but even that doesn’t really compare.
Cordoba is first in batting average and on-base average on the team, and second in slugging percentage. He is fourth in overall offensive WAR according to ESPN, despite having about 100 fewer at bats than many of his teammates. His baseball IQ is clear, whether it’s in his discipline at the plate or his first step on fly balls at a position he’s basically never played before. It was a decidedly group effort on Friday night, but Cordoba was involved in the action from beginning to end, and continues to both transcend baseball logic and inspire from afar.
For those “Embracing the Tank”, the last fortnight has been a nightmare. Not only have the Padres gone eight out of eleven, but the Phillies have lost eight out of ten and before you can say “Steve Carlton”, are a full four games worse than the Pads. The Padres are in the mix with many teams ranging from the A’s to the Giants to the Marlins in terms of potential draft finish. I’m not thinking about that though. I sneaked a peak at the Wild Card standings. Currently we sit 10.5 games back of the Rockies and Diamondbacks but only five games back of the Cardinals for the next position. It’s not summer yet, it’s still spring. Hope never dies, even in the face of global dystopia and three Rule 5 players. Days are still getting longer, faith continues to manifest every game. You never know what may happen. Or maybe I do, but I want to revel in the possibilities regardless.
On the other hand, maybe we’ll call up all top 22 prospects and make a playoff push. Ha! Each day is a new day for the Taco Train to come storming around the bend. We haven’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I think I have the answer:
Uno, dos, adios.
Wave after wave after wave.
Brad Hand and his magical saves.
Long live the Taco Train.