Tatis ties for HR lead, makes mad dash home
SAN DIEGO -- In case you missed the first two months of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s remarkable 2021 season, Thursday night offered quite the refresher course.
The Padres’ 4-3 series-opening victory over the Mets at Petco Park featured all the central Tatis storylines wrapped into a neat nine-inning package -- his otherworldly power, his electrifying wheels, his improving-but-not-quite-there defense, his unsettled health.
And perhaps most importantly, his propensity to deliver just when the Padres need him most.
“We come to the field with one mission,” Tatis said. “Go out there and play winning baseball.”
Tatis was questionable until an hour before first pitch on Thursday. Oblique tightness kept him out of Wednesday’s game in Chicago -- a demoralizing defeat that ran the Padres’ season-long losing streak to four. When the Padres returned home from a grueling 10-game road trip, Tatis (as always) authored quite the reintroduction.
Three times this season, Tatis has been sidelined. Three times this season, he’s homered upon his return. That includes Thursday, when Tatis launched his 17th home run of the season to tie Ronald Acuña Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the Major League lead -- a blast that caromed off the glove of Mets center fielder Mason Williams and over the fence.
That home run gave the Padres an early 2-0 lead. But there’s more than one way Tatis can beat you. He put his wheels on full display in the fifth, practically creating a run by himself. He reached on an infield single, advanced to third on a pair of ground balls and then darted home on a wild pitch that really wasn’t all that wild.
It didn’t kick too far away from Mets catcher James McCann, at least. But Tatis got a perfect read on the ball in the dirt and scampered home, scoring with a daredevil slide. His left foot clipped the outer edge of the plate just before Mets starter Taijuan Walker applied the tag in a full-speed collision.
"There's probably maybe a handful of guys who are going to take that chance, and it's less than that who are actually going to be safe,” Walker said. “And he's one of those guys.”
That’s the beauty of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s offensive skill set.
“You can’t pitch around him because he can get on … and beat you on the bases,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “It’s just such a weapon to have offensively, the threat at the plate and on the bases. And range-wise and what he can do defensively.”
Tatis committed his Major League-leading 15th error in the top of the sixth inning after the Mets had clawed two runs back. He rushed a potential double play, dropping a throw from second baseman Ha-Seong Kim and loading the bases for Mets pinch-hitter Pete Alonso.
But Tatis’ defensive resolve was on full display, as well. Both he and the Padres believe staunchly that his struggles are imminently fixable. They’re working incessantly to fix them.
“It’s as important as hitting, for me, the defense,” Tatis said. “I put all of them in the same category, because I’m one of those players who wants to do every single thing when I’m on the field.”
Sure enough, Alonso would bounce a two-hopper to Kim, and Tatis crisply turned a double play. He skipped off the field, pounding his glove. Two innings later, with the tying run at third base, Tatis made a smooth running play on Brandon Drury’s slow chopper.
It preserved yet another victory for the Padres with Yu Darvish on the mound. They’re 11-1 this season when Darvish starts. This one was particularly eventful. Darvish notched two hits and cruised through five scoreless innings before coming unglued a bit in the sixth, when he surrendered two runs before exiting with one out.
Tingler noted that Darvish’s back tightened a bit prior to that sixth inning, but both seemed optimistic that Darvish would make his next start.
The Padres called on Tim Hill to escape Darvish’s jam, and Hill induced a pair of double-play balls -- the first Tatis’ error, the second his chance at redemption.
It has been quite a season for Tatis, who inked a record-setting 14-year contract in February. He missed nine games in April after a partially dislocated left shoulder (then homered against the Dodgers in his return). He missed eight more in May after testing positive for COVID-19 (then homered against Colorado in his return).
“The true challenge is eliminating noise from a lot of different directions,” Tingler said when asked how Tatis has carried himself since signing that deal. “I would say for his age and what I’ve seen, he’s done an outstanding job of that.”
No kidding. Despite the absences and the errors, Tatis has to be considered an early MVP favorite, and he was serenaded with a steady chorus of those chants every time he came to the plate on Thursday night. He’s been the driving force as the Padres have risen 12 games above .500, a game behind the Giants for the best record in the National League.
On Thursday night, Tatis again found himself at the center of everything. Not that he knows any other way.