Yonder Alonso seeks leading role with Padres

It might seem an odd image, Yonder Alonso working out alongside Alex Rodriguez, these days a fading baseball player who stars only in tabloids.

But there’s an explanation that goes as far back as Miami, where both men spent their formative years.

Back then, Alonso was simply awestruck. The pros walking through the doors at the preteen’s Boys and Girls Club weren’t just any pros.

Marco Scutaro. Derek Jeter. Rafael Palmeiro.

And then there was Rodriguez, who took a particular liking to the aspiring pro.

“After I met him, we really got to talk about baseball,” Alonso said recently. “It was really cool.”

In his own way, the Padres first baseman would like to be that version of his former offseason training partner. Alonso certainly devoted last winter to changing his swing — incorporating more of his legs and torso in hopes of increasing his power while retaining his contact rate — but back home in Miami, he still found the time to stop by his old after-school haunt.

Just about every afternoon, Alonso hoisted jump shots and shared advice with the youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club.

“Those are just things I want to do here in San Diego, since I’m gonna be here for a while,” Alonso said, “kinda do a little bit of what they did for me and help out as much as possible.”

They being the pros Alonso admired. They being the leaders he’d like to emulate, and not just in the community.

Partly by necessity, partly by innate ambition, Alonso has become the Padres hitter saddled, at the moment, with the greatest expectations. In a lineup without projected heart-of-the-order staples Chase Headley and Yasmani Grandal, the first baseman hit the team’s only home run on Opening Day in New York. It would stand as the Padres’ lone home run until they belted two against the Dodgers Monday.

Alonso hit his second home run of the season in Friday's loss to the Rockies, which dropped the Padres to 2-8.

“I gotta do my part,” Alonso said, “but there’s obviously other guys who have to do their part also. This is a team thing here, and you can’t rely on one guy or two guys. You gotta rely on all 25 guys so we can get the job done.”

While those words may sound a bit advanced for someone coming off his first full season in the majors, there’s an unmistakable humility there too, honed by nights cleaning offices in Miami with his father, even during a college career as one of the ACC’s best.

“He’s a very confident player,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “He’s got a lot of pride in his game.”

Which can make it easy to forget Alonso turned 26 Monday. The left-handed hitter is likely to show more power this year than last (nine home runs, 39 doubles), especially given the cozier confines at Petco Park, but he’s still seen barely more than 700 major-league at-bats.

“I told him in San Antonio he doesn’t need to carry the load,” Black said. “He doesn’t need to pick up any production with Chase out or if (Carlos Quentin’s) not in the lineup. He doesn’t have to put everything on his shoulders.

“There have been a couple swings where I thought he was trying to do too much, but he’s gotta get back to using the whole field. We’ve talked about where he is in his career, he doesn’t need to have that pressure to produce offensively.”

But there’s still the sense that Alonso remains perhaps the most crucial piece in the early going, what with the Padres trying to salvage another slow start. On April 3 you could almost hear the collective gasp of a fan base in lieu of a frightening play against the Mets.

Coming off the first-base bag to field a wide throw, Alonso made a swipe tag on Collin Cowgill, only to immediately dangle his left arm in considerable pain.
Much to the team’s relief, Alonso stayed in the game and singled twice the next day, having escaped with nothing more than minor hyperextension in his elbow, ready to resume what he hopes will be a career year.

“We need Yonder to play his game, which is steady defense, which is collect hits, hit his doubles,” Black said. “If a homer’s in there, great. But hit for average, get on base, score runs, knock in runs.

“Pressure’s a good thing, but he doesn’t need to put more on himself.”

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