The Padres entered the 2020 season with high hopes for their rotation and Chris Paddack at the front of it. Paddack was coming off one of the best rookie pitching seasons in franchise history, and he was the obvious choice to start on Opening Day.
A month and a half later, the San Diego rotation has lived up to those expectations. Paddack has not.
The Padres are cruising toward their first trip to the postseason in 14 years. But Paddack, once presumed to be their ace, finds himself fighting for his place on that playoff roster.
The right-hander was roughed up again on Saturday afternoon in the Padres' 8-4 loss to the A's at the Oakland Coliseum. Paddack allowed four runs on seven hits over 4 2/3 innings, as his ERA ballooned to 4.75.
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“It’s frustrating,” Paddack said. “I want to go out there and throw seven shutout innings every time I grab the ball. But this game’s hard.”
Despite Paddack’s struggles, the Padres’ rotation finished Saturday with a 3.68 ERA, ranked seventh in the Majors. That includes only one start from newly acquired ace Mike Clevinger. The Padres fell to 24-17 with the loss -- still 4 1/2 games ahead of Colorado for the second automatic playoff spot in the National League West.
If, indeed, the Padres snap their playoff drought, it’s hard to envision Paddack getting a start in the opening-round, three-game series -- barring an injury or a drastic turnaround. Clevinger is the presumed Game 1 starter, and Dinelson Lamet and Zach Davies have both been excellent this year.
Of course, Paddack’s struggles are easy to diagnose. His pinpoint fastball was a weapon as he ascended through the Padres’ system, and opponents batted just .204 against it during his rookie year.
This season, Paddack has neither the late life nor the pinpoint command that he had with the pitch in 2019. Opponents were hitting .333 and slugging .726 against his four-seamer entering play Saturday. Sure enough, that pitch came back to bite him. In Oakland’s two-run first, both hits came against Paddack fastballs -- including Matt Olson’s laser two-run triple.
“If I could take one pitch back, man, it would be that fastball to Olson,” Paddack said. “I got taken out in the fifth inning, I sat down and reflected on some things that happened during the game and that’s the one that kept throbbing in my head. Just that fastball to Olson.”
The A’s knocked around Paddack’s changeup in a two-run second inning, but that’s been the exception. For the most part, his changeup has been excellent this season.
“That’s the good news,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “We feel it’s very, very close.”
If Paddack figures out his fastball, the Padres might suddenly have the same version of the fiery right-hander that posted a 3.33 ERA with a sub-1 WHIP last season. Slot that pitcher into the No. 4 spot in their rotation, and it’s an extremely formidable group, come October.
“Every time Paddack takes the ball, we expect to win,” Tingler said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence. … Every time he takes the ball, we feel our guy is better than theirs and we’re going to win the game.”
Clearly, the Padres still have confidence in Paddack. The outside world has been less kind to the 24-year-old right-hander, as he has fallen into a sophomore slump. Paddack has heard that criticism and had a message:
“A lot of people, they’re not on my side right now, the fans and that side of the world,” Paddack said. “Hey, I’m just letting them know: I never left. … I’m still going to be Chris Paddack. I’m not changing anything. I know what I’m capable of, and I’m going to toe the rubber every time I get the ball, go out there and give it my all.”
Big day for Nola
Austin Nola, Paddack’s new batterymate, had his best game since he was traded to the Padres on Sunday. Nola went 2-for-4 with a homer and a double -- offering yet another reminder of the major upgrades San Diego made at catcher this week.
“He’s been impressive with his at-bats,” Tingler said. “He’s a professional hitter -- love having him at the plate. We’ve just got to keep him going.”
Nola was set to serve as designated hitter on Saturday, but new callup Luis Campusano was a late scratch with soreness in his left hand. Tingler indicated that the team would have further updates on Campusano’s status on Sunday.
Nola’s eighth-inning blast might have been a two-run shot, if not for a questionable strike-three call on Eric Hosmer, the previous batter.
Shortly after Nola drove a first-pitch fastball from Joakim Soria to the opposite field for a solo blast, Hosmer was ejected by plate umpire Quinn Wolcott for arguing balls and strikes.
“There was obviously a disagreement on the zone,” Tingler said. “And it was hot out there today. That’s that.”
An inning later, Hosmer’s replacement, Mitch Moreland, would strike out to end the game.
Imagine what the Padres' rotation might look like if Garrett Richards got on track. The right-hander showed signs of life with 3 2/3 scoreless frames in Colorado on Monday. He faces Oakland in Sunday's series finale at the Oakland Coliseum at 1:10 p.m. PT, free on MLB.TV. The A's counter with right-hander Mike Fiers.
AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.