Padres combine versatility, depth and a touch of small ball to find success

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

General manager A.J. Preller and manager Jayce Tingler couldn’t have envisioned the land mines awaiting the San Diego Padres this season, nor could they have predicted the resilience of the team in the face of injuries and other misfortunes.

With three of their starters–Fernando Tatis Jr., Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer–as well as Jorge Mateo and Jurickson Profar on the injured list due to positive tests for COVID-19 or contact tracing, the players left standing picked up the pace, winning five games in a row for the first time this season.

The team’s current motto could be no easy outs. Preller has made this possible by building a team of athletic players able to play multiple positions.

However, although highly touted at the beginning of the season, the team’s results had not met expectations. In fact, according to MLB power rankings (Alyson Footer 5-16), the Padres slipped to fifth behind the Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Houston Astros. Fortunately, the Dodgers have their own problems and find themselves in third place in the National League West behind the surprising San Francisco Giants and the Padres.

Instead of reeling in the face of adversity, the remaining Padres tightened up the defense, cut down on strikeouts, and relied on small ball rather than the big fly. On May 14th, the St. Louis Cardinals arrived in town, and San Diego swept the leaders of the National League Central. Helping the cause, Padres batters have the lowest chase rate outside the zone.

In Game 1, a 5-4 win against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Padres took 12 walks, five in the first two innings against Johan Oviedo. That, in turn, forced the Cardinals to do what the Padres had done a lot in April—go to the bullpen early.

San Diego’s patient at-bats helped stretch the game to four hours and eight minutes, in which the Cardinals made a total of 184 pitches, with 12 walks and three hit batters. Notably, no San Diego position player struck out. The Padres hadn’t managed that since August 29, 2005. In fact, no team had since a game between the Colorado Rockies and Atlanta Braves early in the 2018 season.

A hallmark of manager Jayce Tingler’s tenure has been the creation of supportive clubhouse chemistry for all players, including newbies. This stands in direct conflict with pre-Tingler times when veterans like Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, and Melvin Upton looked out for themselves.

Credit: Padres

Players left standing welcomed call-ups like Tucupita Marcano, Brian O’Grady, Patrick Kivlehan, and John Andreoli. Ha-Seong Kim not only continued to prove his prowess at short, but his bat started to catch up to Major League pitching.  Last year’s surprise Jake Cronenworth continued to perform at a high level, and Manny Machado’s bat warmed up.

The return of the versatile Austin Nola has also made a difference, easing the burden on Victor Caratini but also giving Tingler other options on the diamond. At Louisiana State University, Nola not only caught but also played left, right, first, and second.

On Tuesday, May 18, against the Colorado Rockies, the Padres deployed small ball resulting in a win in the 10thinning. Jorge Mateo (back with the team) began the 10th at second, moved to third on a bunt, then scored on a wild pitch.

Blake Snell finally lived up to his Cy Young credentials on Tuesday, as he pitched six solid innings while giving up just one run and amassing 11 strikeouts, a vast improvement over the preceding start in which he threw 84 pitches in four innings.  Joe Musgrove followed, going seven innings with 11 strikeouts as the Padres completed the sweep of the Rockies.

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That day the Padres also welcomed back Fernando Tatis Jr., who muscled a base hit to begin the second inning then promptly stole second—executing a nifty, feet first slide while protecting the shoulder that early in the season landed him on the IL. Playing arguably his best game of the season, Tatis Jr. (the “energizer bunny” for the team) went 4-4 (for the second time in his young career) with a single, two doubles, a home run and two RBIs.

Not to be outdone, Cronenworth hit an inside-the-park home run in the bottom of the sixth to put the team ahead 2-1. Television announcer Mark Grant celebrated his “little league home run.” The last player to achieve that feat had been current radio broadcaster Tony Gwynn Jr. in 2010.

At the beginning of the season, the Padres promise had been compromised by errors as well as boatloads of players left on base. However, a winning streak of six games in which the San Diego Padres performed well in all facets of the game will undoubtedly give the team a boost as it begins a brutal stretch of 20 games in 20 days on Friday, May 21st. First up will be a series against the Seattle Mariners, currently 21-22 with -24 run differential.

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