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DET@SD: Kennedy fans seven Tigers in six innings

SAN DIEGO -- Progress? Difficult to say no when the Padres on Saturday night scored a first-inning run for a third consecutive game.

They didn't win, going down swinging, 6-2, to the Tigers and Justin Verlander in the first of San Diego's back-to-back Cy Young battles this weekend -- reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer on Sunday follows 2011 winner Verlander.

But for a team that ranked 25th in the Majors entering the game with a .226 batting average -- for a team that ranked 29th in the majors entering the game with a .148 batting average with runners in scoring position -- consistently scoring an early run is at least something on which to build.

Before Andrew Cashner's gem against the Tigers to open this series on Friday, the Padres had held leads in only four of their previous 72 innings.

They just missed taking the lead against Verlander, as Ian Kennedy surrendered a first-inning run of his own when Rajai Davis led off the game with a single and Ian Kinsler followed with an RBI double.

"We had some opportunities," Padres manager Bud Black said. "Not a ton. We made him work. We just couldn't push across any runs in the middle innings."

The skipper acknowledged that a team still searching for its offense "put some stress" on Verlander. But not enough to really push the Tigers into a high-leverage situation.

"He's a guy who works his way into a game, and if he feels he's in trouble, he's going to attack," Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "He left some pitches where I think we could have done a better job with. But we just didn't."

The feeling all around seemed to be that Verlander (1-1) was vulnerable. But a vulnerable Verlander still is tougher than most.

Kennedy was wobbly early, allowing baserunners -- and yielding all four of his earned runs -- in each of his first four innings. Kinsler doubled in the third, and, two batters later, Miguel Cabrera belted a double to drive him home.

The other two runs Kennedy allowed scored in the fourth when Torii Hunter, back from a three-game absence with a bruised knee, drilled a two-out, two-run single. That pushed the score to 4-2. "A backbreaker," Black called it.

Certainly, it was too much for the Padres despite their threat of early momentum. Though they had Verlander off balance in the first inning -- a walk and two singles, with Chris Denorfia scoring on Jedd Gyorko's sacrifice fly -- they could manage just one more run against him. That came in the fourth, when the hot-swinging Chase Headley, following a leadoff double, scored on Yasmani Grandal's single.

Headley, after an 0-for-10 drought, now has five hits in his past 10 at-bats, including a homer and two doubles.

But with runners at first and third and two out in the fifth and the Padres down, 4-2, Verlander blew a 96 mph heater past a swinging Headley for strike three.

Another missed opportunity came two innings earlier, when Everth Cabrera led off the third with a double but never moved when Denorfia struck out, Seth Smith flied to center and Gyorko flied to right.

"He's always the same thing," Smith, the former Oakland Athletic, said of Verlander. "His velocity last year and this outing isn't what it was in the past. But he knows how to pitch with what he's got.

"Honestly, when he's really good, it's not about velocity."

By the middle innings, it was about the big, sharp curve Verlander broke out more frequently.

"When we did get a pitch to hit, we fouled it off or hit it right at people," Alonso said. "We've got to find holes."

It was perhaps the only night of Verlander's career on which one could argue that he was sharper with the bat than on the mound: Entering the game with a career batting line of 0-for-26 with 15 strikeouts, he cracked two singles against Kennedy in his first two at-bats, also scoring a run.

It also was one of the few recent nights on which a Padres starter was off even a tick. Through their first 10 games, San Diego starters compiled a 2.95 ERA, which ranked seventh among all Major League rotations and fourth in the NL.

Over their past six games into Saturday, Padres starters had compiled a 1.66 ERA, the Majors' best mark during that period. The second game in that stretch? Kennedy, at Miami, held the Marlins to one run and only three hits in six innings.

Yet Grandal said Kennedy was for the most part even better Saturday night than he was last weekend against the Marlins.

"He threw a great game," Grandal said. "He was attacking the strike zone, and he was using his changeup way better than he did in Miami."

Kennedy agreed, acknowledging that his changeup was the best it had been in his three starts this season -- or any start this spring.

"I'm happy to see that come around," he said.

Life for both Kennedy and his fellow pitchers will become much easier when the Padres' bats finally come around. The team is pitching well enough to win right now.

But the club's difficulties with hitting increased exponentially against Verlander, with Scherzer on deck Sunday.

Grandal said several Padres hitters talked among themselves after facing the Indians last week, admiring how Cleveland hitters approached situational at-bats.

"It seems like they all know what they're capable of doing," he said. "They're willing to give themselves up to get guys into scoring position, and let the guy behind them come up with the big hit.

"[Friday night] we did it, and it was great. That's how good teams play."

It's early yet, and though they are only 4-7, the Padres still think they will become one of those good teams. A hit here, and a hit there, and they're on their way.

"We know it's only April," Grandal said. "In order to get the bats going, we're going to have to play situations."

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