SAN DIEGO -- Jake Cronenworth has delivered his share of big hits for the Padres this season. Considering the calendar and considering the standings, they don’t get much bigger than this one.
Cronenworth launched a walk-off solo home run in the ninth inning on Sunday afternoon, sending San Diego to a pivotal 4-3 win over the Astros at Petco Park. That victory, coupled with a Reds loss to the Tigers, moved the Padres back into sole possession of the second National League Wild Card spot, half a game up on Cincinnati.
“He’s been clutch all year,” said manager Jayce Tingler. “He’s come up with big moments, big at-bats, big plays. So it’s pretty appropriate for him to finish this one off.”
Indeed it was. Cronenworth turned around a Ryne Stanek splitter, sending it into the first row beyond the right-field deck and igniting a party at Petco Park. (And all he got for his trouble was a mouthful of baby powder as he crossed home plate.)
“I’m really just trying to get on base any way possible,” Cronenworth said afterward. “I happened to get a good pitch to hit.”
He got one. And, in the biggest moments at least, Cronenworth doesn’t seem to miss. Last month, he authored a dramatic two-run game-tying homer in the ninth inning against the Phillies. He’s the first Padres player to hit game-tying and walk-off homers in the bottom of the ninth in the same season since Jerry Morales in 1973.
On top of that, Cronenworth has already reached his first All-Star Game this season. He has played excellent defense at first base, second base and shortstop (including an outstanding diving stop to rob Yuli Gurriel in the fourth inning on Sunday). He has hit multiple inside-the-park home runs. He hit for the cycle. And he even pitched in a pinch earlier this year, striking out Mookie Betts.
“His personality, and who he is, he’s always pretty even-keel,” Tingler said. “He’s never too high, never too low. He’s always in that calm middle ground, and I think that helps him excel in those moments, when it’s late in the game and the heartbeat gets going.”
That same trait is particularly useful for a player who is slumping -- and make no mistake, Cronenworth had been slumping. He entered Sunday having batted just .136 with a .406 OPS over the previous two weeks.
“The last week has definitely been tough,” Cronenworth said, “from the Arizona series to L.A. to the start of this one. I’m just trying to get comfortable. … Personally, I’m not a very mechanical guy. I never try to think about mechanics. For me, it’s just: Whenever I get in that box, just get as comfortable as possible.”
He sure looked comfortable on Sunday, even before the home run. Cronenworth worked a walk during the Padres’ three-run first inning and singled in the sixth. Throw in some outstanding defense at shortstop, and it was quite the Cronenworthian afternoon.
Funny, the way the Padres so meticulously constructed their roster for this year’s playoff push, signing mega free agents and swinging blockbuster deals, and yet, with their season hanging in the balance, one of their most important contributors is an unheralded infielder, who many believed was a throw-in in the Tommy Pham trade.
Right-hander Chris Paddack was mostly solid on Sunday afternoon, and he was extremely efficient, needing only 63 pitches to work through six-plus innings. Paddack, who strangely did not record either a strikeout or a walk, induced mostly weak contact for the first six frames. But Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa launched back-to-back homers to open the seventh, tying the game at 3 and ending Paddack’s day.
Nonetheless, Paddack kept the Padres in the game without his swing-and-miss stuff. He was particularly effective early, working around some defensive miscues that could have spiraled.
“I came out today, and made things personal and said, ‘We’re going to win this series,’” Paddack said. “This is going to be one of those turning points. … With  games left, this is a good turning point in our season, especially with the walk-off by Croney.”
After Paddack’s exit, the Padres bullpen worked three innings of scoreless ball, setting the stage for Cronenworth to spark a raucous celebration at home plate. It came less than 24 hours after an emphatic 10-2 win that saw Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado at their swaggy, bat-flipping best.
Lest we forget, the Padres spent August seriously mired in the dog days. Even their victories looked nothing like this. Perhaps this kind of weekend -- a party-like atmosphere featuring two impressive wins against quality opposition -- was just what they needed.
“When we’re playing our best, everybody’s having a great time,” Cronenworth said. “Everybody’s dancing in the dugout, pulling for each other. … That swag and having fun -- when we’re doing that on a day-to-day basis and everybody’s confident, it’s tough to beat this team.”