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Cashner on starting Opening Night for the Padres

Opening Night for the Padres at Petco Park comes with an unusual twist. Their familiar rivals to the north, the Dodgers, already have a lead in the National League West after taking a two-game series against the D-backs in Australia.

While the Padres open with their ace, young Andrew Cashner, the Dodgers are withholding theirs. Clayton Kershaw, characteristically masterful Down Under in the official Major League Baseball season opener last weekend, was scratched and placed on the disabled list with inflammation in his upper back.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, who also pitched superbly in Australia, will toe the rubber for the Dodgers now that he's comfortable on his right foot after the partial removal of a torn nail on the big toe. He passed his final test by completing a bullpen session on Friday.

Zack Greinke -- recovering from a right calf muscle strain -- is scheduled to go for the Dodgers in the second game of the series on Tuesday. Fellow right-handers Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross will follow Cashner in the series for San Diego.

Apart from sharing the sun of Southern California, the Padres and Dodgers are completely different in most ways.

While the Dodgers' expectations are mountainous, the Padres' are at sea level. This can be a good thing for manager Bud Black and his club, providing freedom from the media glare that surrounds the high-profile division champs who fell two wins shy of the World Series last October.

The Padres are dangerous when they're running the bases with abandon and playing free. No team in the Majors has stolen as many bases as Black's outfit over the past four seasons. The leadoff catalyst is back in motion with the return of shortstop Everth Cabrera from his 50-game suspension for violating the MLB drug policy last year. Cabrera had an NL-high 44 steals in 2012 and 37 in 95 games in '13.

Critical to the Padres' fortunes are third baseman Chase Headley and left fielder Carlos Quentin and the authority they bring to the heart of the order. They have track records of big seasons when they stay on the field, but that's been the challenge.

And the Padres are facing their first hurdle of the new season after the team announced on Saturday that Quentin will open on the disabled list with a bruised left knee.

Quentin has battled a bone bruise since he jammed his left knee while making a diving catch in the outfield on March 16. The injury followed a string of three surgeries on his right knee in the last two years -- including a season-ending operation last September.

Headley, who strained his right calf on Feb. 22, has had a limited spring but is cleared to go. If he's back in 2012 form, when he led the NL in RBIs with 115 and was fifth in the Most Valuable Player balloting, Headley is a force from both sides of the plate.

Quentin, who produced 36 homers for the White Sox in 2008 and 50 combined in 2010-11, has been limited to 86 and 82 games in his two seasons with the Padres. His hometown team needs a full-time, full-service Quentin in support of Jedd Gyorko, Will Venable, Yonder Alonso, Chris Denorfia and Seth Smith.

Gyorko, under the national radar, had a higher slugging percentage (.444) than Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist in a terrific rookie season, delivering 23 homers and 26 doubles.

"You get Everth Cabrera back at the top of the order," Black said, "we feel it's a good group. But we haven't had that group together for a lot of games. We like the names as they project on paper. But as you know, you can't play games on paper."

The Dodgers, who fell to the Cardinals in six in the NL Championship Series after knocking out the Braves in the Division Series, are not without issues and concerns with position players as they wait for the rotation to take shape.

Manager Don Mattingly and Co. are hoping Matt Kemp is able to bring his thunder to the heart of the lineup in his recovery from shoulder and ankle surgeries. Kemp would like to be back in center field for the home opener against the Giants on April 4.

It would be a big plus if shortstop Hanley Ramirez -- a lethal force last year after recovering from a fractured thumb -- can get through the season and Yasiel Puig can settle down and take full advantage of his dazzling skill set in right field.

Catcher A.J. Ellis and Adrian Gonzalez and Juan Uribe at the corners are consistently productive, and Dee Gordon had three hits, scoring twice, while leading off in his season debut at second in Australia. Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier add left-handed balance to the attack.

Mattingly's main concerns in Sydney were his bullpen, expected to be a strength with Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen at the back end.

"We talked about this last year a lot; you don't play like this and win," Mattingly said, his relievers having struggled to protect a 7-0 lead in what became a 7-5 victory in the finale of the series. "You may win and get to the playoffs, but you don't win like this. This ends up getting us in trouble."

Black is confident in his staff, top to bottom, after a 16-11 September lifted the Padres to a third-place tie with the Giants in the division at 76-86 last season.

"The optimism really started last year in the second half when our starting pitching really started to show up," Black said. "You saw Andrew Cashner, you saw Tyson Ross, we traded for Ian Kennedy. You saw what we did collectively as a pitching staff. You add Josh Johnson to the mix, you add Joaquin Benoit, Alex Torres, and when you see who we have on the mound, it's exciting."

Johnson is expected to miss the opening month with a flexor strain in his forearm. Benoit and Torres, proven relievers, have joined a bullpen anchored by closer Huston Street.

The Dodgers took the season series, 11-8, in 2013. These clubs have a historically intense rivalry, underscored by the melee last April with Greinke and Quentin as the primary combatants after Quentin was hit by a pitch and charged the mound. Greinke suffered a broken left collarbone when he was tackled by Quentin, costing the pitcher five or six starts on his way to a 15-4 season. Comments