Wil Myers, the longest-tenured Padres player, has learned a thing or two about franchise history in his seven seasons with the team. He knows San Diego’s sagging fortunes in 2021 don’t mean the club is doomed to continue to decline.
“The '96 Padres were good; the '97 team wasn't very good,” Myers said. “Then, they went to the World Series. You can look at it with optimism, in that regard, if you can learn from it.”
The Padres’ 2021 season may have been reduced to a lesson, but it is not yet over. The team, which had postseason expectations and World Series aspirations, was eliminated from contention with seven games remaining -- all against teams still fighting for postseason positioning.
The first of those seven came Sunday afternoon, a 4-3 loss to the Braves in the final game of the year at Petco Park. Starter Joe Musgrove allowed three runs and struck out nine over five innings as the Padres fell to 78-78, the first time they have been at .500 since they were 10-10 following a loss to the Brewers on April 21.
The Braves extended their National League East lead to 2 1/2 games as they close in on a postseason berth. Nonetheless, the Padres’ revised goal is to cause trouble for contenders.
“Hopefully, we could create some chaos and keep playing baseball until the last out is made,” San Diego third baseman Manny Machado said.
The Padres close the season with six road games against the top of the NL West. After an off-day Monday, they play three against the Dodgers and three against the Giants. They must split those six games to avoid a losing season and must win four to have a winning season.
Star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. was not in the Padres’ lineup Sunday against the Braves -- he struck out looking as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and the winning run on second -- but manager Jayce Tingler indicated the schedule ahead means the final week will not bring regulars resting and open auditions for 2022.
“We've got a group of professionals in there,” Tingler said. “We've got to finish up this last week. We're playing teams that are playing for divisions and playoff spots, and we owe it to ourselves to finish out. We owe it to the game, the integrity of the game. We've got to go out and play ball.
“I think we'll have an opportunity here in this last week, as guys are playing, you get a good look when it comes to makeup and character and all those things. So we’re going to go out, continue to play and try to win the games.”
Added Musgrove: “Everyone’s trying to compete still. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the competition, to run our best lineup out there and to give them everything we have.”
Truth be told, it’s not as if Tingler has a lot of players ready to audition, youngsters who could push an incumbent aside.
In that regard, Myers’ example of the 1996-98 Padres has some validity. Those teams went from first to worst to first again with minimal turnover in the lineup. Then-GM Kevin Towers didn’t tear the club apart after an injury-riddled ’97 campaign. Instead, he showed faith in the position players while addressing two needs: a frontline starting pitcher and bullpen depth. Towers parted with top first-base prospect Derrek Lee to bring in ace Kevin Brown, who keyed the ’98 pennant drive and provided a fiery example for the younger starters behind him in the rotation.
Can the present-day Padres bounce back without an overhaul? They rank last in the Majors with 3.73 runs per game over their past 40 contests, a stretch in which they have gone 11-29.
It’s up to general manager A.J. Preller to decide whether the underachieving offense is an aberration or whether he needs to find big bats in the offseason. Then, he must weigh that against the need for starting-pitching depth, as he had to sign free agents Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez this season when injuries ripped giant holes in the rotation.
Machado, for one, voiced confidence that internal improvement is possible, that the unrealized potential of the 2021 Padres could be met a year from now.
“We have a great group of guys,” Machado said. “Our team is definitely the right team to go out there. We compete. We grind with each other. We understand each other. … These are things that you look at at the end of the year, and you make the decision there.”