SAN DIEGO (AP)
It didn’t take Jake Cronenworth long to start making an impression in the big leagues.
The rookie with the San Diego Padres doubled in his first big league at-bat, hit his first homer in his sixth game and put on such a fielding clinic at first base during the second full week of the season that A.J. Pollock of the Los Angeles Dodgers said he was ”just trying not to hit it to that Cronenworth guy” when he delivered a go-ahead hit against San Diego.
On Aug. 26, Cronenworth’s grand slam against Houston made ”Slam Diego” the first team in big league history to hit five in six games. Earlier that week, they became the first team to hit a grand slam in four straight games.
Life in the majors came at Cronenworth fast and he responded so well that he was named NL Rookie of the Month. He’s gone from being an intriguing two-way prospect who came over with Tommy Pham in an offseason trade with Tampa Bay to being the leading contender for NL Rookie of the Year.
”It’s pretty tough to let it all sink in right now, with everything going as fast as it is, going game to game, trying to get to playoffs,” the 26-year-old Cronenworth, said. ”We’ve got a great group of guys here. It’s been an awesome time so far.”
Led by exciting young shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. – a leading contender for NL MVP – and a resurgent Manny Machado, the Padres have become perhaps baseball’s most entertaining team. Cronenworth has been along for the ride almost from the start. He was pressed into duty at first base early in the season when Eric Hosmer missed several games with a stomach ailment and looked comfortable there even though he hadn’t played the position consistently since his college days at Michigan. He has since taken over at second base, forcing Jurickson Profar, another offseason acquisition, to the outfield.
Playing in the same outfield as Tatis, Machado and Hosmer has been ”unbelievable,” Cronenworth said.
”Every single night it seems like one of those guys is doing something special, whether it’s on the defensive side of the ball or on the offensive side. It’s almost like I’m watching a highlight video every night. It’s pretty fun.
”I’m just along for ride with those guys. They’re the stars of the show. I’m just a little kid from St. Clair, Michigan.”
He’s hitting .346 with four homers and 17 RBIs, and has reached base 19 straight games. His on-base percentage is .405 and he’s slugging .606.
General manager A.J. Preller, who pulled off a dizzying six trades from Saturday through the trade deadline on Monday, said Cronenworth was anything but a throw-in in the Pham trade.
Preller said the Padres had Cronenworth targeted going back to last year, when pro scouts Dom Viola and Keith Boeck, plus analyst Dave Cameron, ”felt he was a guy that could be something as an everyday player for us down the road. It’s nice to get multiple looks and options. They weighed in and had him targeted, and it was something we were able to line up on.
”It’s nice having guys who can play multiple positions, especially shortstop, like Jake can do,” Preller said. ”The thing our scouts had talked about was a guy that’s unflappable and a guy that they felt like he is a very intelligent baseball player and a guy that’s under control. We’ve seen all those things so far here in a short period of time. He’s come as advertised. He’s obviously played very well right from the start.”
Cronenworth began exhibiting his versatility in college, including pitching. He said the Padres agreed he wouldn’t pitch this year due to the pandemic-shortened season.
”I enjoy pitching. I think when I first initially did it, it came up as an idea and I thought it was a good opportunity to start doing something different,” Cronenworth said. ”Playing shortstop and pitching, not too many guys are doing that and I thought it was a good way to separate myself and create some opportunity.”
With the 21-year-old Tatis expected to be the everyday shortstop for years to come, Cronenworth will be content to play wherever Tingler pencils him in on the lineup sheet. Cronenworth has played short twice when Tatis was the DH.
”Wherever they see me fit, whether it’s bouncing all over the place like I am or staying at second, I’m completely comfortable doing that,” he said.
Cronenworth said he began working at first base during spring training, ”obviously having no foresight that was going to be the first position I would ever see in the big leagues. I settled in there for the first couple of weeks and after Hos came back, I’ve been moving around ever since then.”
Manager Jayce Tingler said Cronenworth has been a big part of the Padres’ success.
”He’s versatile, he can go different places on the field and he’s trustworthy,” Tingler said. ””Just having another really good baseball player on this team, a really good batter, he’s hitting lefties, he’s hitting righties. He’s setting the table, he’s driving in big runs. He’s just got to continue to be himself and doing what he’s doing.”
Cronenworth grew up playing hockey and was a childhood friend of Tyler Motte of the Vancouver Canucks.
”When I was a sophomore in high school, I fell in love with baseball just a little bit more and just ran with it,” he said.
”Yeah, it’s looking like a good decision right now,” Preller said. ”He’s been a lot of fun to watch.”
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