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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Padres improving (rapidly!) with style that matches ballpark

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The most surprising team in the majors heads east this weekend and, yes, San Diego will take a charter flight to Cincinnati for the opening of a three-game series Friday night.

It will be one of the few times the Go-Go Padres aren't running to their destination.

Everth Cabrera and the Padres have gotten creative in huge Petco Park. (AP)  
Everth Cabrera and the Padres have gotten creative in huge Petco Park. (AP)  
Their current six-game winning streak and first-place standing in the NL West has been fueled by an emphasis on team speed and derring-do on the base paths.

Tuesday, Chase Headley's three steals keyed a 1-0 win in which the Padres mustered just one hit (last time the Giants franchise held an opponent to one hit and lost: 1917). Wednesday, Tony Gwynn Jr. scored a run on Everth Cabrera's suicide squeeze -- after Gwynn had reached on a bunt single, took second on an errant pickoff attempt and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt.

When you rank 29th in the majors in payroll -- only Pittsburgh's $34.9 million falls below the Padres' $37.8 -- you need to get creative.

When your home park has more acreage than just about anywhere else, you need athletes who can cover ground.

The Padres, now playing in their seventh season in Petco Park, finally have figured that out.

There is no telling whether their current bonanza can last over the rugged terrain of 162 games. But given their hot start and Boston's early problems, and after months of trade rumors, what if Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez actually already is with a contender?

"From what I've seen, it's causing mass confusion," left fielder Kyle Blanks said of the Padres' brand-new running game.

And that comment came during the last few days of spring camp, before the Padres trampled the Diamondbacks and Giants to complete a 7-2 homestand Thursday.

Looking to sharpen the edges of the full-speed assault he intended to unleash, Padres manager Bud Black worked the green light often this spring.

San Diego ran wild, its 50 steals by far leading the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. Next was Washington with 42, followed by the White Sox at 39.

Now, over the season's first three weeks, the Padres lead the NL with 17 thefts. Across the majors, only Tampa Bay and Texas (18 apiece) have more.

"It's awesome," Gonzalez said. "It makes me want to get involved."

Whoa, let's not get too crazy. Gonzalez, over 713 big league games, has exactly one steal. That came last year.

"I may try to sneak one in now just to try to get into the stat column," he quipped.

Or, at least to try and not fall too far behind speedy teammates like third baseman Headley (five steals), shortstop Cabrera and outfielder Will Venable (three each) and the two Juniors, Tony Gwynn and Jerry Hairston (two each).

"We have some very talented guys," Gonzalez said. "Guys who will go from first to home.

"I've got a feeling we're going to lead the league in triples, too. There are big gaps in Petco, and we have some guys who can run and are not going to stop.

"That's the most fun for me. You can see other teams are worried about it."

The Padres this spring brought former outfielder Dave Roberts in to specifically work with players on the art of stealing bases, leading off and reading pitchers.

"He brought all his knowledge," Gonzalez said. "And, the great thing about Dave is, his knowledge isn't just his knowledge -- it's Maury Wills', and it's that of others he's been around during his career. Dave loves the game, and he takes knowledge in.

"Ricky [Renteria, Padres first-base coach] does a great job, all of our coaches combined. And when you added Dave to the mix ..."

Biggest question is, what on God's green earth took the Padres so long to figure out that speed can and should be a lethal weapon in a cavernous park that still retains the new-car smell?

Granted, the first couple of years in Petco were experimental. When clubs move into new digs, it always takes a year or two to learn how the park plays.

Then-general manager Kevin Towers figured it out quickly enough and added some speed elements by 2006 (center fielder Roberts, rookie second baseman Josh Barfield) and 2007 (center fielder Mike Cameron).

But after losing a one-game playoff to Colorado in '07, a philosophical divide under then-president Sandy Alderson corroded the front office and, ultimately, the team. By opening day '08, lineup spots were opened to outfielder Paul McAnulty and other one-dimensional players with the potential to compile high on-base percentages and not much else.

It was an incredibly flawed premise in Petco, and even on the road, and it thoroughly sabotaged pitchers such as Jake Peavy, Chris Young and Greg Maddux -- which, at the time, was the one clear strength of the club. Meantime, what those Padres lacked in defense, they certainly did not make up for in criminally boring station-to-station offense.

Alderson left the club last April as new vice-chairman Jeff Moorad assumed control from soon-to-be-former-owner John Moores. Towers was fired last October during a front-office reorganization.

Under Moorad and new GM Jed Hoyer, the Padres finally have a plan to incorporate personnel that fits their park. They do not match up talent-wise with some of the NL West's heavy hitters -- the roster remains thin after Gonzalez, with nary a Matt Kemp or Tim Lincecum or Troy Tulowitzki to be found -- but what they lack in marquee power, they have in panache.

What these Padres want now is the "Petco player."

"With the spaciousness of our field, historically, there's been low-scoring games," Black said. "So you've got to defend. And, also, with that, there are those players whose power has to be legit, raw power. Guys like Blanks and Gonzalez."

And within that, with home run totals having declined in the years since testing was instituted for performance-enhancing drugs. ...

"Athleticism is the word around baseball now," Black said.

It's something that was in inexplicably low supply in San Diego in 2008 and in the first half of 2009, and it's something that is back in abundance now.

Plus, the players are having a blast. So far, the Runnin' Padres have only been caught stealing three times.

"You go from runners in double-play position to runners in scoring position," Blanks said. "And sometimes when the throw doesn't make it where it should, you end up with guys on third base."

Said Gonzalez: "We could have seven or eight guys with 10-plus stolen bases this year."

Doesn't mean the Padres will ride all this to 90 wins. But it's guaranteed to make them entertaining and watchable -- two things they weren't as Alderson pressed forward with his plan during the dark days of '08.

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