For Padres’ Jake Cronenworth, Michigan homecoming was just what the hit doctor ordered

Detroit Free Press

Just outside the visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park, Jake Cronenworth dispensed a few final hugs before departing.

This wasn’t a sad goodbye but rather the bittersweet end to another homecoming. Cronenworth, a San Diego Padres infielder, and his father Charlie embraced before going their separate ways. In total, they spent about an hour over the past three days catching up — a dad and his 29-year-old ballplaying son maximizing their short time together.

“This weekend,” Charlie observed, “he looked like his old self.”

During the three-game series vs. the Detroit Tigers, the former St. Clair and University of Michigan baseball standout made his mark. He produced four hits, three RBIs and scored twice. He also was an asset in the field, where in the second inning Sunday he vacuumed up two hard-hit groundballs and gave the Padres some additional returns on their sizable investment in him this past spring.

“It’s been awesome,” he told the Free Press. “I’m in a great spot and I can’t wait to continue this journey.”

If Cronenworth’s allegiances are divided between his old home and new one, it’s understandable.

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The Padres’ infielder may be a native of this state, but Southern California is where he has earned both fame and fortune.

“I’m in a pretty great place in San Diego,” Cronenworth said.

Better yet, his long-term future there seems secure.

In April as the season launched, he signed a seven-year, $80 million contract extension that offered another reminder of Cronenworth’s rapid and unexpected rise from obscurity. After all, this Wednesday will mark the third anniversary of his 2020 major league debut at the ripened age of 26.

That day, Charlie said, was a “surreal moment.”

“It obviously was a dream for him,” he added.

But not long ago, it seemed uncertain if Cronenworth would ever realize it. Back then, he was headed nowhere fast, stuck in a holding pattern.

During the first five seasons of his pro career, he toiled away in Tampa Bay’s minor league system after the Rays drafted him in the seventh round out of Michigan in 2015. The Padres acquired him in a December 2019 trade that altered the course of his baseball life. Less than eight months after the deal was struck, he was in the big leagues.

“Got my chance and took advantage of it,” he said.

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He has since become a fixture in the Padres’ lineup, a versatile position player and a two-time All-Star. For Padres’ manager Bob Melvin, Cronenworth is an indispensable cog.

“He’ll play anywhere for you,” Melvin told reporters earlier this year. “He works as hard as anybody here.”

Cronenworth wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s his diligence and determination, he says, that have been the key ingredients in his success.

“So when it pays off, it’s pretty sweet,” he said.

The fruits of his labor have been on display during his triumphant return to Michigan, where Cronenworth found his comfort zone.

Family, friends, close acquaintances and former coaches watched him get his groove back after enduring a rocky season marked by a batting average that has hovered near the Mendoza line. He hit a triple Friday, duplicated the feat Saturday and then smacked a double Sunday to cap a solid series played approximately 50 miles from where he was raised.

The weekend in Detroit, Charlie surmised, provided “a shot in the arm” for Cronenworth.

“I think it was a good boost for him,” he said.

Propelled by his performance, Cronenworth is heading back to San Diego, the city where he showed he had what it takes to not only make the majors but also stay there.

“Just glad I can call it home now,” he said.

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