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Impact of Headley's return will be far-reaching

Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award winner missed 14 games with thumb injury

SAN FRANCISCO -- On the eve of Chase Headley's long-awaited return to the Padres' lineup, manager Bud Black was asked if he needed to have a conversation with his third baseman about trying to do too much or trying to solely carry the burden of the team's offense.

"We've had that [talk] before ... to a certain extent," Black said. "I haven't really thought about it much. Chase has a lot of common sense. He knows he can't [try to carry the team]."

At that precise moment, Black paused, thinking back to last season.

"Even though the last two months [of 2012], he pretty much did just that," Black said, smiling.

Headley, who returned from the disabled list before Wednesday's game against the Dodgers, missed the first 14 games after fracturing the tip of his left thumb on March 17 in a Spring Training game in Arizona. He went 1-for-4 with a walk and an RBI in the Padres' 7-2 victory.

Headley, coming off a season where he led the National League in RBIs (115), was initially told his thumb would need between four and six weeks to heal. He made it back in just over four, as the thumb responded well -- at the plate and in the field -- during the four Minor League rehab games that he played in.

"I felt like I accomplished what I needed to there, and the next step was to face big league pitching. I'm very comfortable with where I'm at," Headley said Wednesday.

The Padres were 4-10 without Headley, and they feel -- for obvious reasons -- that they'll be considerably better with the 2012 NL Gold Glove Award and Silver Slugger Award winner anchoring the hot corner and being a force in the middle of the lineup moving forward.

The Padres open a three-game series Friday at AT&T Park in San Francisco against the Giants, with No. 7 in the lineup and starting at third base.

"We're very excited for him to be back," Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso said.

The Padres' offense, contrary to popular belief, didn't perform horribly without Headley. The team was ninth in the NL in runs and hits and on-base percentage, and 10th in batting average in a small sample size without Headley.

But having Headley hit in the middle of the order, coming off a monster season during which he hit 31 home runs and earned NL Player of the Month Award honors in August and September, figures to help the team in obvious ways, and some that aren't so conspicuous.

"I think there's only one word that can describe it: presence," Alonso said. "It's his presence in the field, the lineup, the clubhouse. That's critical. Chase is the kind of player who puts pressure on the opposing pitcher and gets him thinking about him three or four batters before he comes up. That's presence."

There's the durability factor as well. Headley has played in at least 156 games in three of the past four seasons, and likely would have done so in 2011 had he not suffered a finger injury that sidelined him in August.

The Padres used three players at third base -- Jedd Gyorko, Cody Ransom and Jesus Guzman -- in Headley's absence. The trio combined for five errors. Headley had 10 errors in 159 games a year ago.

"He's really professional and you can count on him every single day," said San Diego catcher Nick Hundley. "And this will allow us to get guys back in their natural positions and will lengthen our lineup out more. But for me, what he adds is the consistency."

Alonso, who was in his first full Major League season in 2012, said he learned a lot by watching and listening to Headley, who is looked upon as a leader in the clubhouse.

"He showed me how to be ready every single day," Alonso said. "And the more I leaned on him and the more I talked to him, the better and better my year got."

Headley's return not only will allow Gyorko to move back over to second base, but will allow Black the luxury of keeping his bench intact through the game -- an important component for an NL team. Headley will also allow hitters in the lineup to mostly slide back into spots where they are accustomed to hitting.

"If [Headley is] doing his thing, he's getting on base -- either with the hit or walk," Black said. "Last year, he was doing it with a lot of slugging, doubles and home runs. When you're on base a lot, it helps the other guys."

Black is hoping for even bigger things once outfielder Carlos Quentin finishes his eight-game suspension for his role in a benches-clearing melee with the Dodgers on April 11. Quentin can appear in his first game on Tuesday. On May 28, catcher Yasmani Grandal will be eligible to play after his 50-game suspension for testing positive for testosterone use.

Suddenly, the Padres' offense that scuffled early in the season could look formidable again, much like it did during the second half of last season.

"[Headley is] going to have an impact," Black said. "When Quentin comes back next week, and a month from now if Grandal comes back being Grandal, that's the middle of the order. That's what we're hoping for in time. It starts one guy at a time. Chase can only do what Chase can do."

And about having that conversation with Headley about trying to carry the offense? Black said that he'll have one, but isn't expecting it to last long.

"I will probably reinforce it. It will be a short conversation," Black said. "But Chase knows."

Corey Brock is a reporter for Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter.
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