Even Manager Jayce Tingler, crouched on the outside of that circle, relaxed into a smile when the jokes and barbs flew. In these moments, his team is the same as it ever was, a collection of stars and swagger so promising that many around the majors thought the Padres would be challenging the Los Angeles Dodgers this time of year, not squinting up at them from 16 games back, fighting for a National League wild-card spot.
But after being swept by the Dodgers this weekend in a series that saw key contact man Jake Cronenworth leave Friday’s game with a broken finger and Blake Snell walk abruptly off the mound Sunday with adductor tightness, the Padres are hanging on for dear life. They entered play Monday at 74-68, about to begin a four-game series with the best team in baseball, the San Francisco Giants. They don’t play a losing team the rest of the season. And they were in a virtual tie with the Cincinnati Reds for the second NL wild card.
“It’s as poor as we’ve played,” Tingler said Sunday after the Padres lost to Max Scherzer and the Dodgers, 8-0. “With [three weeks] to go, around there, we’re still in this.”
Perhaps the only thing more stunning than the Padres’ fall to the periphery of the playoff picture is that they somehow remain on the periphery. They do not look like the team that visited Dodger Stadium earlier this season. In April and May, every game between the Dodgers and Padres qualified as appointment viewing. Every pitch was contested, every inning brought a new twist, and every night seemed to foreshadow similar drama in the fall.
But the nearer the schedule has come to October, the less magical those matchups have become. The Padres have lost six straight games to the Dodgers over the past two months, scoring a total of nine runs. And with both teams in need of starting pitching at the trade deadline, it was Los Angeles that scored Scherzer, not his other primary suitor, San Diego. Instead, the Padres were left to try to hit him Sunday. They didn’t reach base until the eighth inning.
Most teams struggle to hit Scherzer, but San Diego isn’t just struggling to hit future Hall of Famers. Over the past four weeks, the Padres are batting .206 — worst in the majors — with a .644 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
And even if they were only facing the best of the best, this is the reality they planned and hoped for — that some time this autumn they would need to match up with the Dodgers’ elite rotation, which replaced Trevor Bauer with Scherzer but was always, always going to be formidable.
“Right now, we’re probably not slugging as a group enough. And if we’re not going to do that, we’ve got to be just a little more skilled with the bat,” Tingler said. “We’ve got to find a way to get hits with runners in scoring position.”
Most teams go through periods when they simply can’t score. Getting hits with runners in scoring position is something most teams will eventually need to do, and decades of baseball minds have failed to come up with an easy answer about how to flip a switch and do it.
“I feel like at the end of the day this is baseball. Everybody knows this game, how it can go well for a long time and bad for a long time,” Fernando Tatis Jr. said. “But I feel like this is a really good time for a battle.”
Tatis isn’t one to look like he’s battling at all. When he is right, he is exciting, dynamic, joyful — the fresh face of Major League Baseball, the 22-year-old who bounced back and forth to a ball bucket at the Home Run Derby in Denver, tossing baseballs into the stands with a smile on his face. But even Tatis is less buoyant now, after recurring shoulder trouble kept him on the injured list for much of August and forced him to move to right field for safekeeping when he returned.
Only Saturday, after Cronenworth’s injury, did Tatis move back to shortstop, at which point he promptly hit his 38th home run and stutter-stepped around third base, as if free to be himself again.
But he is still wearing a harness, literally and figuratively, instructed by coaches and trainers to play carefully because one more blow to his finicky left shoulder might end his season altogether. The Padres simply can’t afford to lose him, too.
And they can’t afford mediocrity from their stars. Before seeming to settle down in his most recent outing, presumptive ace Yu Darvish had allowed at least four runs in seven of his past nine starts. With Snell out indefinitely, Joe Musgrove may be the Padres’ most consistent and reliable starter. But even he had to wrestle with his command to hold the Dodgers to three runs in six innings Friday.
“Everyone’s in that lull right now of feeling like we can’t get things right,” Musgrove said after that outing. “We do put good games together, and teams find a way to play better than us.”
Fortunately for the Padres, one team that has not yet played better than them, at least not consistently, is the Reds, who have lost two straight. The Padres began their series with the Giants on Monday tied with the Reds for that second wild-card spot, with the Cardinals a game behind. The Padres play the Cardinals in St. Louis this weekend, followed by the Giants, Atlanta Braves, Dodgers and Giants — a nightmare schedule for a team feeling its best, let alone one struggling to rediscover the swagger that made it great.
“We’ve been saying it a lot: We’re too good of a team to be playing this way for much longer,” Musgrove said. “But it’s not easy.”