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Bullpen pulls escape act; Padres win 4th straight

Wingenter gets out of jam in 7th before Yates closes again
@AJCassavell
April 14, 2019

PHOENIX -- All season, the Padres' bullpen has bent. It still hasn't broken. Fernando Tatis Jr. gave San Diego a four-run cushion with an early two-run blast on Saturday night. The Padres coughed it up. Then, Franmil Reyes' pool-seeking homer gave the relief corps a second chance in the seventh.

PHOENIX -- All season, the Padres' bullpen has bent. It still hasn't broken.

Fernando Tatis Jr. gave San Diego a four-run cushion with an early two-run blast on Saturday night. The Padres coughed it up. Then, Franmil Reyes' pool-seeking homer gave the relief corps a second chance in the seventh. Somehow, some way, that one-run lead held up.

With their fourth straight victory, a nervy 5-4 decision over Arizona at Chase Field, the Padres managed to channel the franchise’s only two pennant-winning teams. The last time a San Diego ballclub started a season by winning at least 11 of its first 16 games? 1998. Before that? 1984.

Are these Padres for real? Through 16 games, they’ve been as real as they could possibly be. But they’ve also tested the limits of their excellent bullpen. San Diego has yet to win a game by more than three runs, and they’ve needed closer Kirby Yates to finish 10 of those wins.

“What I'm seeing from my teammates is that we never give up,” said Reyes. “That's us. From 2019, and now on, that's us.”

The drama came in the seventh after Reyes put San Diego on top with his opposite-field homer. Robert Stock and Trey Wingenter loaded the bases without allowing a hit. In fact, the D-backs tallied three walks and a hit-by-pitch, but the Padres still managed to put a zero on the board.

It started with Wingenter, who picked off Jarrod Dyson as he attempted to steal third base. Two batters later, things got chippy. Wingenter plunked Eduardo Escobar with a 97 mph fastball at his knee. The usually-affable Escobar barked back in frustration. When he reached first, the bases were loaded for Nick Ahmed.

“That was an ugly inning, as ugly as it gets for us in the big leagues,” Padres manager Andy Green said. “We got out of it, though.”

Ahmed worked the count full, building the suspense further. Then he bounced a one-hopper back to Wingenter, who snared it with his glove and threw home to start a 1-2-3 double play. The 6-foot-7 right-hander hopped off the mound and pumped his fist before letting a scream loose. The visiting dugout erupted.

“Sometimes,” Wingenter said, “you've got to find a way.”

That seems to be the Padres’ motto these days. Yates, for instance, surrendered a leadoff double in the ninth before bouncing back with three consecutive punchouts for his league-leading ninth save, putting the Padres in position to complete a four-game sweep Sunday.

“You don’t play flawless baseball,” Green said. “You play resilient baseball. That’s captured who these guys have been.”

Great Yates

The Padres are under no illusions. They know they can’t call on Yates to finish 10 games out of every 16. But they also have won those 10 games, and Yates is more than happy to bank those victories.

“You've got to go with the way the games unfold,” Yates said. “It's April, and it just happens to be like this. If this happens over a six-month span, it'll be incredibly crazy. But we're in a grind right now. You accept it, and when your role comes up, you take the ball.”

That mindset comes straight from legendary Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Last July, when Brad Hand was traded to Cleveland, Yates got two save opportunities in his first three weeks as closer. Hoffman offered some advice: “They’ll come in bunches.”

Clearly, Yates has embraced the sudden spate of save opps. He owns a 0.90 ERA and is striking hitters out at a 43% clip. Still, the Padres know they need to ease his workload eventually.

“We can't maintain that pace,” Green said. “We know that. ... At some point we're going to win a game by more than one run. I promise.”

Strahm steps up

With each outing this season, Matt Strahm has looked more like the starter the Padres envisioned before the season. Saturday was Strahm’s best showing yet.

The 27-year-old left-hander was hit hard by the D-backs in his 2019 debut, but he bounced back nicely in St. Louis. Then he blanked Arizona over five innings Saturday, allowing just four hits while striking out four.

“I’m excited for the next one,” Strahm joked.

Strahm was shaky early. He stranded runners in scoring position in each of the first three innings. But once he leaned on his changeup, he settled in nicely.

“Hedgy and I have done a great job of figuring out what’s working as the game’s going on,” Strahm said. “It seems to always be something different with me.”

Strahm completed the five frames on 89 pitches. After Strahm spent last season in the bullpen, Green wasn’t going to ask for much more. Green had a reliable group of relievers to call upon, after all. A group that’s gotten it done, even when it hasn’t been pretty.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.