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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Just in time, Padres might finally have found a leadoff hitter


DENVER -- Nobody said pennant races make sense. There are no straight lines from Point A to Point B at this time of year, and so it was that Padres manager Bud Black arrived at Coors Field and wrote Aaron Cunningham's name into the top slot in the batting order.

Here it is, mid-September, the Padres have doggedly held onto first place in the NL West in one form or another every day since June 18 ... and they're still auditioning leadoff hitters.

In the three games in which Aaron Cunningham has batted first or second, he has seven hits and San Diego has scored 22 runs. (US Presswire)  
In the three games in which Aaron Cunningham has batted first or second, he has seven hits and San Diego has scored 22 runs. (US Presswire)  
Making his first professional start atop the order, Cunningham was the ninth leadoff hitter employed by the Padres in a game this year.

The kid showed up, looked at that lineup card and grinned.

"I'm excited," he said, grinning broadly.

By the time he finished punching out three hits and scoring two runs in what might have been San Diego's most important win of the year, a 7-6 Rocky Mountain High in Colorado, everybody else in the clubhouse was overjoyed.

"Wow," said shortstop Miguel Tejada, whose play on Eric Young's game-ending, double-play grounder with the potential tying run on second sealed this one. "That kid did a great job. And David Eckstein in the two hole, I think that's a natural position for him."

In the most unlikely season by baseball's most improbable team, the nine different leadoff hitters is the most vivid example that the whole of these Padres is greater than the sum of their parts.

"Without a doubt," Eckstein said. "A lot of guys have hit leadoff. Adrian Gonzalez has told them he needs to hit leadoff."

Eckstein was joking. I think.

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But this is no joke: Coming into the game, the .222 batting average by Padres leadoff men ranked last in the majors. Even Pittsburgh's leadoff men had combined to hit 10 points higher, .232. The American League's worst, Toronto, was at .235.

This, too, is no joke: The .298 on-base percentage compiled by Padres' leadoff men ranked 29th in the majors. Only Cleveland's .291 was worse.

Yet, the Padres are 20 games over .500, and their 82-62 record is the sixth best in the majors.

These numbers do not add up, and it sure seems like the Padres have tried everybody but Gonzalez atop the order.

B.C. -- Before Cunningham -- they tried brothers -- Scott and Jerry Hairston each have done it. They've rolled out guys who sound like trucks -- Durango, Luis. They've used the son of a Hall of Famer (Tony Gwynn Jr.) and they've tried an Ivy Leaguer (Will Venable, proud son of Princeton). They've experimented with someone who majored in international relations and Hispanic studies at Division III Wheaton (Mass.) College (Chris Denorfia).

Manager Bud Black has gone with a World Series MVP (Eckstein; St. Louis, 2006) and with a kid who's faster than a speeding bullet (Everth Cabrera) atop the order.

Say it again, with meaning: The whole is greater than the sum of these parts.

"I don't know if you can say it any better," Eckstein said. "We play as a group. That's our biggest strength.

"Not many people pick our club, or pick our lineup, against a lot of other teams'. We're at our best when we all play as one."

It's the Padres' way: Pitch their rear ends off, and keep shooting those pop guns offensively. On Tuesday night, Jon Garland was admirable in not walking a soul while obtaining 12 groundball outs during his seven innings. His sinker was biting and his fastball was finding its target.

Mike Adams, Joe Thatcher and closer Heath Bell tag-teamed to finish it, though Adams was touched for a run and Bell was exceptionally wobbly, allowing a 7-4 lead to melt to 7-6 while allowing two runs on three hits and a walk in the ninth.

But Bell nailed his most important pitch of the evening, a sinker -- Bell calls it a two-seamer -- that induced the game-ending, double-play grounder from Young, Colorado's speedy leadoff man.

It was the kind of moment winners get in the clutch: Young, during 156 plate appearances to that point, had yet to ground into a single double play until that moment.

But here's the thing: As the Padres were losing 13 of 17 games heading into this crucial series, even their stellar pitching wasn't enough to overcome their suddenly even-more-feeble-than-usual sticks.

Before Monday, the Padres hadn't scored more than four runs in 16 consecutive games.

That's why that victory Monday, and then the jolt supplied by Cunningham on Tuesday, was so important. He singled to start the game and spark a two-run Padres first. He delivered another single in the second. He cracked a double in the fourth.

By the end of the fourth, the Padres led 4-0 and Cunningham had three of the hits and two of the runs.

Picked in the sixth round of the 2006 draft by the White Sox, baseball took Cunningham from Chicago to Arizona to Oakland before, finally, the Padres grabbed him from the A's last winter in the Kevin Kouzmanoff deal.

He has bounced up and back three times between Triple-A Portland and San Diego. He hasn't hit leadoff much since his Class A and Double-A days. In Portland, he mostly hit in the middle of the lineup. In San Diego, he has batted .351 in the 22 games he has started (including Tuesday).

And back on June 15, he became the first player ever for the Padres to smoke a grand slam in his first at-bat with the club.

"I like him in there," Garland said. "He's fresh. We have some guys starting to get tired, and he's fresh."

Blonde, quiet and only 24, Cunningham remains just a guy looking for a chance.

"[Monday], I hit second and I was excited about that," Cunningham said. "Most of the time, I've been hitting eighth, or seventh.

"When they put you at the top of the lineup, you feel good, like they think you can help."

The more Cunningham plays, the more the Padres know he can help.

Despite that nasty little 10-game losing streak, they now lead San Francisco by 1½ games in the NL West and Colorado by 3½.

And in terms of their divisional standing, regaining their balance and beefing up their confidence level, there is no overestimating how big their second successive victory in Coors Field here Tuesday was.

"He does some things offensively," Black said, ticking off specifics such as the way Cunningham handles the bat, the way he runs the bases, his capability of stealing a base ... you know, things required of a major-league leadoff hitter.

Yes, the manager said, Cunningham would probably be back in the lineup for the series finale here Wednesday. Hitting leadoff? Black just grinned.

From the Padres side of things, it was a good night for that.


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