Before they save baseball, the unapologetically fun Padres had to save their season

Hannah Keyser
·7 min read

Sometimes this season — as baseball stumbled through 60 games to get to this adrenaline-and-27-cups-of-coffee-fueled month-long gauntlet that will crown a champion — Manny Machado would chat with opposing players who had reached third base.

If his San Diego Padres were home at Petco Park, the runner might say something that Machado must have already known, but probably appreciated hearing nonetheless.

“This city would be rowdy if the fans were able to be in the stands,” the runner would say. Or something like that.

“Because they know this city. They know this city,” Machado said Thursday, a few hours before what certainly would have been the loudest, rowdiest game at Petco this year. Before the Padres saved their season by rallying to beat the St. Louis Cardinals and stave off elimination in Game 2 of an NL wild-card series they were expected to win.

Oh, it’s low-hanging filler for broadcasts, strained by four-hour games, to banter for a bit about how the crowd, if there could be a crowd, would be yelling themselves hoarse with joy, if expelling air in the vicinity of other people was something we still did blithely.

It’s trite, and treacly, and has been true everywhere all year. Every city wants to see its team win an elimination game. San Diego has just been waiting since 2006. They haven’t seen their team advance in the postseason since 1998.

And it’s not just the drought that’s driving a narrative around how the Friar faithful, of all fan bases, are missing out on something special this season. It’s the qualitative stuff too. How many different ways can you call a team “fun” before it feels like a cliche or a consolation prize? For the Padres, it’s neither. It’s the thing that people who love the game worry that baseball lacks, the limiting reactant in a sport that’s cerebral and nostalgic and sometimes a little stodgy.

In the same year that smart people have wondered whether baseball can even survive — its inherent slowness, its single-minded evolution, its lingering labor strife — the Padres have been heralded as saviors of sorts. Because they’re fun. And really good too. In the regular season, the Padres had the second-best record in the National League, third-best in all of baseball.

Machado, just recently one of the loudest presences in the game, quietly had the best offensive year of his career out in sunny San Diego. His contributions to the suddenly dominant darlings of the baseball world were overshadowed by his protege in swag, stationed slightly to his left. Together, he and Fernando Tatis Jr. might be the top two reasons you suddenly found yourself buying Slam Diego-emblazoned merch and bandwagoning the Padres this season.

Mostly, though, it’s been Tatis.

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. reacts after hitting a three-run home run during the sixth inning of Game 2 of the team's National League wild-card baseball series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Burgeoning Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. roared after finally unleashing a three-run homer in the sixth inning of Game 2 against the Cardinals, changing the complexion of the series. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

In the bottom of the fourth inning Thursday night, Tatis came to bat with the bases loaded. Just before that, Trent Grisham had struck out for the second out of the inning. Before that, Jake Cronenworth had walked to drive in the second run and cut the Cardinals’ lead in half. So anyway, here’s Tatis, who at that point had left six men on base in the first 12 innings of the series. He had approached his first at-bat of the game all smiles, looking like the superstar everyone says he soon will be, which means he already is. But just a few innings later the game felt completely different. It felt like their season was on the line.

At home, you thought, this is where he hits a grand slam. Oh, I know you know that it was unlikely! In every plate appearance, failure is far more likely than success. Even a team that hit a history-making seven grand slams in 60 games hardly ever hits a grand slam.

But, admit it: You thought he might anyway.

Instead, Tatis struck out.

It was emblematic of the Padres’ struggles to that point in the short series. They were the best in baseball at hitting with runners in scoring position during the season — both by batting average and the all-encompassing offensive stat wRC+. By the end of the following inning, the fifth, the team as a whole had left 17 runners on base. They didn’t have a single home run, which is how they scored more than half their runs in the regular season.

Until the sixth. The Cardinals had added two more to go up 6-2. There were two Padres on base, and this time Tatis did what you know you shouldn’t expect him to do, except that it would be so fun if he did: He put the ball in the seats.

“To me that’s maturity, that’s growth, that’s all the things you want to see out of a young player,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said after the game.

Seven pitches later, Machado had his own home run. It wasn’t a grand slam; but it was four runs on long balls to tie the game.

From there, things got interesting, and a little dicey at times. The Padres don’t have enough pitching with Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet both out injured. In the end, it took them nine arms to get through the game as the Cardinals clawed back three more and ultimately left the tying run on base. But the bats had come alive and they stayed loud.

Wil Myers hit a home run. Then Tatis hit another. That time he didn’t even jog out of the box, the ball was gone before he had a chance to. Instead he smoothly transitioned from the kind of coiled power that can launch an opposite-field no-doubter to simply standing there, so cool it’s almost disaffected, with a bat that he no longer needed flicked into the air toward teammates already celebrating. He hardly looked happy.

“The game was not done,” Tatis said later. “The job was not done.”

San Diego Padres' Wil Myers watches his two-run home run during the eighth inning of Game 2 of the team's National League wild-card baseball series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Wil Myers swats his second homer of the night in Game 2 of the NL wild-card series. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

So Myers hit another, combining with Tatis for a feat that will forever cement them alongside Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. And eventually, the job was done: 11-9, Padres.

It was the first postseason victory at Petco Park.

Trevor Rosenthal, who closed what ended up being a close game, said that on the way to his Zoom news conference he could hear fans cheering outside the stadium.

“We know how excited people are here,” he said.

The win on Thursday means that they can gather outside the stadium again one more time. Win or lose Friday, Game 3 against the Cardinals will be the last game the Padres play at Petco Park in 2020. (Next week, it’ll host the Yankees-Rays in the American League Division Series.)

The Padres will be playing once again to keep their season alive, playing for a chance to go to Texas, where they would face their division rivals, who happen to be the best team in baseball. Survive that and they could play in front of a limited number of socially distanced fans at the NLCS in Arlington; beyond that, as many as 11,500 if they make the World Series. All at a neutral site, and accompanied by the ethical ambiguity of having any fans at all this year.

There isn’t a tidy way to put a bow on, or wring a moral out of, the Padres playing some of the most exciting baseball in recent memory without a home fan base to appreciate it in person. The coronavirus pandemic drained the color from so many experiences, leaving only the essential and perfunctory. That’s part of why people have responded so viscerally to the embellishment and entirely un-businesslike way that the Padres play baseball. Hopefully, it’s a reminder of what’s still waiting for us on the other side.

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