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Monday, April 2, 2007 | It’s Opening Day, folks — well, one of them. As a near-religious holiday, with at least as much cultural significance as Columbus Day, it’s more than OK to take the day off.

If you’re a particularly responsible employee, however, and since it’s a moving target these days, you might want to choose exactly which Opening Day to play hooky on. Used to be, as baseball’s oldest club, the Cincinnati Reds got to break the seal on the season, with a home opener starting a day or perhaps an hour before everyone else.

Jealous teams started ignoring the tradition about a decade ago, moving up their ceremonies to whenever they pleased, then along came ESPN with their Sunday night affair. The result is three Opening Days – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – four, if you count your team’s home opener separately. And guess who’s last to debut in 2007. Yep, your San Diego Padres.

With 28 teams either 0-1 or 1-0, the Padres take on the San Francisco Giants Tuesday at 1:35 p.m., at AT&T Park. Actually, it might be called Cingular Park now. With all the telecommunications companies who’ve laid claim to the place, I’ve lost track.

A leaner but not necessarily meaner Barry Bonds will work out of the home team’s first base dugout. So will a bunch of former Padres, including manager Bruce Bochy, coaches Tim Flannery and Glenn Hoffman, outfielder Dave Roberts and first baseman Ryan Klesko.

If last year is any indication, and it should be, San Diego’s success starts and finishes, quite literally, with pitching. The 2006 staff led the National League with a 3.87 team ERA, and with Trevor Hoffman recording 46 of the bullpen’s 50 saves, the Padres were first in that category too.

The rotation looks to be as solid and varied as any in baseball, with young veterans Jake Peavy and Chris Young at the top, Clay Hensley third, with Greg Maddux and David Wells on the back end.

Hoffman leads by example in all ways imaginable, and if the 2007 seasons produced by Cla Meredith and Scott Linebrink are anything like last year’s, opponents are looking at six innings with which to work. Assuming the Padres can score, that is.

Therein lies the problem. Gone are the bats of Mike Piazza, Dave Roberts and Josh Barfield. In their stead are new starting left-fielder Terrmel Sledge, new second baseman Marcus Giles and rookie third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff.

Will anyone with a crystal ball on those three please step forward. No? I thought so. Well, that’s baseball, pal. Anything can happen, and usually does.

Kouzmanoff, perhaps unfairly, is being talked about everywhere you look as key to the Padres chances in 2007. Reading Bob Nightengale’s article in USA Today, I discovered that Kouzmanoff used longtime San Francisco third baseman Matt Williams as his positional role model.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Padres can be as patient with Kouzmanoff as the Giants were with Williams. Or, of course, if they’ll need to.

San Francisco tried and failed three times to get Williams to stick. In 1987, ’88 and ’89, Williams posted batting averages of .188, .205 and .202 respectively, with the Giants returning him to the minors for more seasoning each time. In 1990, the 24 year old Williams finally paid dividends, to the tune of a .277 average, 33 homers and 138 RBIs.

Kouzmanoff is 25 now, but who knows what that means? He might be the second coming of Fred Lynn, leading his team to the World Series, as both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. Or he might be straddling .200 at midseason. Somewhere in between seems about right. Kouzmanoff’s first challenge is to stay in San Diego through the season. If he can accomplish that, and muster .240, 20 and 75, my guess is the Padres will be ecstatic.

Beyond third base, San Diego has few serious questions to concern itself with at the start. No one really thinks Brian Giles is finished at 36, and certainly Khalil Greene’s streak of late-season finger injuries will end at two — two fingers, two seasons. And the old wives’ tale about pitchers making bad managers? Please. If anything, Bud Black’s rookie status as a skipper might make a difference.

If there’s a spot that’s a non-question for the Padres, it’s first base. Adrian Gonzalez is a star waiting to happen. Yeah, the “A-Go” nickname is a tad girlie-man, but Gonzalez is a great ball player. He’s just a great player, who’s going to be a batting champion someday. Reminds me of Rafael Palmeiro, but in a good way.

I’m not one for making predictions; not good ones, anyway. Of course, I guess that qualifies me as much as anyone. This much I know: The Padres will pitch the crap out of the ball in 2007, won’t necessarily do the same with the bats, and will finish first, second or third in the NL West, behind or in front of Arizona and Los Angeles, and considerably ahead of San Francisco and Colorado.

It’s Opening Day in America. Better than Christmas. The best day of the year. Enjoy.

Howard Cole co-hosts voiceofsandiego.org’s local sports blog, From the Cheap Seats. He’ll be writing about baseball and the Padres all summer. Send him a note at baseballsavvy@aol.com or send a letter to the editor.

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