SAN FRANCISCO – Kevin Kouzmanoff is a couple games into his first full big-league season and already he has been asked to light a fire for the San Diego Padres.
It's a lot to ask of a young man, just 25, and 60-some at-bats into his career, on a team of veterans like Mike Cameron, Brian Giles, Greg Maddux and Jake Peavy, a guy whose goals are more tethered to seeing pitches and doing something with them.
"I want to be an impact, power-hitting third baseman here," he said. "And I want to help the team win."
Oh, and for this fire, he was not allowed to use matches. That was part of the challenge leveled by first-year manager Bud Black, who'd noted in spring training Kouzmanoff listed "camping" in the media guide as one of his hobbies.
So, Black asked Kouzmanoff if he were capable of building a fire using nothing but stuff he'd carry into the woods.
"Sure," Kouzmanoff said.
Great, Black told him. Everyone would be in the clubhouse to watch. He had a week.
Now, here's the truth. Kouzmanoff, you know, likes to camp once in a while, but his outdoorsman skills fall somewhere below Rambo on the survivalist scale.
He practiced diligently on the patio of his Peoria, Ariz. apartment, using a flint, a pocket knife and some kindle shavings, and had been successful about half the time when the day arrived.
"So, I was pretty nervous going into this thing," he said. "The pressure was on. I had to get this fire lit."
After some scraping, some smoldering, a few wisps of smoke – Kouzmanoff on his hands and knees, feeding the embers with short breaths, surrounded by new teammates – a small flame sparked, and flourished.
"I got a good-sized fire going," he said, grinning.
All of which works as a fine analogy for Kouzmanoff and his part in the rebirth of the dynamic third baseman in the major leagues.
He stands behind David Wright, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Zimmerman, Chad Tracy and Garrett Atkins, alongside Alex Gordon and Andy Marte, ahead of Evan Longoria, Brandon Wood and Andy LaRoche. The scouting reports aren't as kind to Kouzmanoff as they are to, say, Gordon ("That kid's going to be a franchise-type player," an American League scout said), but they love his bat and his attitude.
"I've seen those guys on short looks," Black said, "and he's got to be mentioned with those guys, absolutely. Kevin, I think, has been under the radar."
If they're not already here, they're coming.
"Third base was much more of a problem even two years ago," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, who, a year or so from Longoria's arrival, went to Japan to sign Akinori Iwamura to play third. "It's beginning to be much less of a problem. And it's going to be a strength in the game a year from now."
Kouzmanoff is expected to provide the corner power the Padres wished Sean Burroughs would have and, in fact, so believed in that they stocked and drafted around third base for years. It is why they dealt promising second baseman Josh Barfield to the Cleveland Indians for Kouzmanoff this winter, and why on opening day Kouzmanoff became the 13th different player to start at third for the Padres in two years.
He is 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds with what one scout called, "A lot of power to dead center," adding, "He's a 20- to 25-homer guy, even at Petco."
He'd also come with a reputation as a so-so defender, but Kouzmanoff initially surprised the Padres with his range and his arm, then worked diligently with coach Glenn Hoffman to further sharpen those skills. Against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night, he deftly charged and picked a roller and then threw strongly to first, and later doubled hard to left against Giants closer Armando Benitez.
"He's a little unorthodox in his approach over there," Padres GM Kevin Towers said, "but he makes the plays."
The rest, they assume, will come. He hit 25 home runs in the minor and major leagues last season, and Towers, after initially building a roster of left-handed pull hitters to fit the new Petco, now believes the park is more suited to straight-away hitters.
"He profiles well in our park," he said.
After hitting only 161 home runs and finishing 13th in scoring last season, then having Mike Piazza leave for the Oakland Athletics, the Padres required more power, or at least the potential for it. They hit three home runs Wednesday night against the Giants – one each by Adrian Gonzalez, Marcus Giles and Khalil Greene – but that will be rare.
So, someday, they figure Kouzmanoff will stand in the middle of their lineup, cup his hands, and get something going. It's worked before.
"And he started a beauty," he said.