When Vicente Padilla arrived at Dodgers camp in February, he figured he'd be no better than third on the club's depth chart.
But Padilla, who was in essence fired by the Texas Rangers last year, will take the ball Monday as the Opening Day pitcher when the Dodgers try to defend their back-to-back National League West titles, having never finished first for three consecutive seasons in franchise history.
Padilla went 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in seven regular-season starts for the Dodgers last year. He threw seven scoreless innings to beat the Cardinals in the NL Division Series clincher and allowed one run in 7 1/3 innings to beat the Phillies in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series.
Padilla was a combined 12-6 with a 4.46 ERA last year and, more pertinent to the Opening Day start on the road, is 18-5 on the road over the past two seasons, the best record in baseball for a pitcher with at least 30 starts.
This is his 12th professional season, four of which he's won at least 14 games. A free agent after last season, he re-signed with the Dodgers for $5.025 million, but only after the club was satisfied that thigh injuries suffered in an accidental shooting wouldn't hinder his pitching.
It will be the first Opening Day start in Padilla's career. Except for second base, the Dodgers will field essentially the same lineup they had a year ago. The last time they started seven players on consecutive Opening Days was 30 years ago.
Among the returnees is Manny Ramirez, again in a contract year. General manager Ned Colletti said Ramirez is "more focused" this spring than last spring, when he arrived after signing in early March.
"Who knows what type of spring he needs to have in his own mind," said Colletti. "He's been far more focused. I see a difference in determination and approach to him."
Manager Joe Torre said Ramirez has made adjustments in his swing and balance at the plate designed to prevent a repeat of his second-half collapse last year. At 37 going on 38, Ramirez might not have the power he once possessed, but Torre said he can still make an impact.
"He'll be a productive hitter," Torre predicted. "I have no idea how many home runs he's going to hit, but I believe he'll be very productive. In our lineup hitting fourth, he will have guys on base. I've never been thrilled with home runs. Hits in key situations with men on base is more important."
Torre said he believes Ramirez is "not as distracted as last spring." Torre was notified that Ramirez hasn't spoken to the media in a month.
"Maybe to stay in that place he knows he needs to be to play baseball," Torre offered as an explanation for Ramirez's withdrawal.
Torre will field a new second baseman after the departure of Orlando Hudson. Blake DeWitt figures to get most of the playing time at the outset, although the Pirates are starting left-hander Zach Duke in the opener and Torre could counter with right-handed hitter Jamey Carroll.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.