The surfboards have been packed away. The wisecracks have been kept to a minimum. Dave Smith, the man the Padres never wanted, is doing quite nicely with the Chicago Cubs, and loving every minute of it.
Smith, 36, a San Diego State alumnus, joined the Cubs as a free agent in the off-season, filling the role as their right-handed bullpen stopper. After leading the Houston Astros in saves each of the past six years, Smith said that he always wanted to play for the Cubs before retiring. His first choice, however, was the Padres.
“There was only one problem with that,” he said. “They didn’t want me.”
The Padres instead signed Larry Andersen, Smith’s 38-year-old teammate with the Houston Astros, who also was declared a second-look free agent.
“Maybe they thought I was too expensive,” said Smith, who is guaranteed $4.9 million over the next two years by the Cubs, only $500,000 more than Andersen. “But it doesn’t matter. I think we’re both happy now. We’re both out of Houston.
“To tell you the truth, even if San Diego had made an offer, it might have been tough to turn down the Cubs. I mean, look at this team. I’ve never been on a more talented team, at least on paper.
“I don’t know how the Padres will do, but I think this team can win it.”
Padre starter Andy Benes, making his first start of the season Thursday in the Padres’ 8-6 victory over the Cubs, said that the pain in his back no longer bothers him. Now, if he can only find a slider and changeup to go along with his fastball, he’d be set.
“I considered it a success,” Benes said, “because I only walked one guy and didn’t get hit by a line drive up the middle. I was experimenting mostly with my changeup. . . . I know I’ve got to start being more effective with my other pitches. I can’t just rely on my fastball. I tried that last year, and look what happened.”
Benes wound up with a 10-11 record and 3.60 ERA, failing to win a game after Aug. 24. His biggest trouble was that although he limited the opposition to a .206 batting average during the first two passes through the lineup, they batted .306 against him thereafter.
“I really was never throwing my fastball like I wanted,” he said, “and it’s still not there. I’m not even approaching 90 m.p.h. But it’s early. There’s time. I’m not worried.”
Ever so quietly, Padre catcher Benito Santiago is having one of the best spring-training camps of his career. He hit his second home run in two days Thursday in the sixth, and went three for three, raising his batting average to .438.
“I can’t believe how good I feel,” Santiago said. “It seems like before, I would just hit balls into the gap. But now, working out during the winter, and working with (batting coach) Merv (Rettenmund), I’ve got a lot more power.
“I don’t see any reason why I won’t be able to hit 25 homers and drive in 90 runs this year.”
Instead of beginning to make assessments of who his starting outfielders will be, Padre Manager Greg Riddoch said Thursday the situation is actually more muddled. The reason? The surprising play of Thomas Howard and Jim Vatcher. Howard, playing in center field, went three for four Thursday, raising his batting average to .700 this spring. And Vatcher, playing right field, went two for three, raising his batting average to .333, with three outfield assists.
Padre shortstop Tony Fernandez sustained a bruised finger on his right hand when fielding a sharp ground ball hit by George Bell, his former teammate in Toronto. “When he hits the ball that hard,” Fernandez said, “there’s not much you can do.” . . . Second baseman Bip Roberts hit a 410-foot homer over the right-center field fence, his first opposite-field homer of the spring. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” Roberts said. “I can hardly believe it myself.” . . . Reliever Pat Clements was the winning pitcher Thursday, allowing only one hit and striking out five in three innings. . . . Eric Show will face his former teammates for the first time at 6:05 p.m. (PST) today when the Padres play the Oakland Athletics in Phoenix.