Villanueva earns NL Rookie of Month with 8 HRs
Padres' slugging third baseman looking forward to returning home for series with Dodgers in Mexico
SAN FRANCISCO -- As the lone Mexican-born player on either roster this weekend, Christian Villanueva was always going to be greeted warmly when he arrived home for the upcoming three-game weekend series between the Padres and Dodgers at Estadio de Beisbol in Monterrey, Mexico.
It certainly won't hurt that Villanueva will touch down on Thursday as the National League's Rookie of the Month Award winner for April.
• Previous NL Rookie of the Month Award winners
Villanueva burst onto the scene last month, putting his immense power on full display. On Wednesday, he was justly rewarded by being named the Padres' first NL Rookie of the Month since Ryan Schimpf in July 2016.
"It's good timing," Villanueva said through a team interpreter. "I am inspired [by playing in Mexico]. I want to continue this good rhythm, help the team win and put on a good show for everyone in Monterrey."
Villanueva batted .321/.411/.692 over the period of March and April which was used to determine the winner. He finished well above all other Major League rookies on the WAR leaderboards, and his eight homers before May 1 were the second most in franchise history, trailing only his countryman Adrian Gonzalez, who mashed nine April dingers in 2009. (Villanueva wasted no time making his case for May, crushing a solo homer in the first inning on Tuesday night.)
"He's confident that he can play at this level," Padres manager Andy Green said. "Now it's a matter of staying consistent over the course of a season. Consistent doesn't mean he's going to have a 1.200 OPS all year. ... But he can be a very, very productive offensive third baseman, and I think everybody is seeing that right now."
After opening the season buried on the Padres' depth chart, Villanueva quickly asserted himself as the everyday third baseman in San Diego. In his second start of the season, Villanueva became the eighth Padres player in history with three homers in a game during an April 3 contest against Colorado.
"I wasn't expecting this much [success] so quickly … but I don't think I'm ever satisfied," Villanueva said. "I'll just go day to day and keep working."
Entering play Wednesday, Villanueva had a 1.112 OPS and a .707 slugging percentage. The Padres see plenty of staying potential in his power.
"It's huge power," Green said. "It's going to play very well against left-handed pitching. ... He has to stay hungry, stay driven, stay motivated to do really special things. He's got that inside of him to do it."
It's been quite the journey for Villanueva to arrive as one of the Majors' top sluggers. He spent eight seasons as a journeyman in the Minor Leagues.
In 2008, Villanueva signed with Texas and current Padres general manager A.J. Preller, who was in charge of the Rangers' international scouting at the time. But Villanueva's path to the Majors was blocked by Adrian Beltre, and he was dealt to the Cubs in '12.
Again, Villanueva's path would be blocked by a superstar third baseman -- this time, Kristopher Bryant. Villanueva lost his 2016 season to a broken leg and was granted free agency that offseason.
Preller took a flier on the onetime top prospect, and it's paying big-time dividends already. Given his eight seasons spent toiling at the Minor League level, it's easy to forget Villanueva is just 26. The Padres entered the season without a clear long-term answer at third base. They may have found it.
As for the forthcoming trip to Mexico, Villanueva is expecting dozens of friends and family in attendance. He'll be the focal point for Mexican fans and media, and he's been tabbed as the ambassador for the event.
"It's going to be pretty exciting," Villanueva said. "The Mexican fans, they have a lot of fun. They get really involved in the game. I always say, 'It's just a big party.' All of us Latino people, we live in the game. At the end of the day, it's a game, so we have fun with it."
These days, no one is having more fun with it than Villanueva.