'So close': Padres fall short vs. Pirates after 9th-inning rally

July 27th, 2023

SAN DIEGO -- Forget the big wins. Forget the lopsided losses. If the Padres fail to realize their sky-high ambitions in 2023, they'll look back at games like this one and wonder how on earth they lost so many of them.

The winnable games. The games that hang in the balance in the late innings. The games like Wednesday afternoon’s 3-2 loss to the last-place Pirates at Petco Park. The Padres just aren't winning them this season, and nobody seems to know why.

“I don’t know what the [heck] needs to change,” said third baseman Manny Machado. “We need to play better.”

“It’s kind of felt like that the whole year,” added shortstop Xander Bogaerts. “A lot of losses that we’ve had, it’s been pretty much the same. … Just so close, but not the result that we wanted.”

There are numbers aplenty to tell that story. The Padres are 6-17 in one-run games. They’re 0-9 in extra innings. Their +51 run differential is third best in the National League, while their 49-54 record ranks 10th.

But numbers alone do not tell the full tale. There’s no singular cause of the team’s inability to win these games. Sometimes the hitting is poor. Sometimes the pitching is poor. Sometimes the luck is poor.

But, without fail, it’s something.

“We’re going to have to get past it,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “… We’re going to have to change the narrative, and it has not happened to this point.”

On that front, it’s hard to envision a more maddening ending than Wednesday’s. The Padres trailed by a run in the eighth inning when Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a missile to straightaway center field. Jack Suwinski ran it down on the warning track, leaving Tatis doubled over in frustration at first base.

Pittsburgh added a tack-on run in the ninth. But the Padres fought back. Xander Bogaerts worked a 12-pitch walk to begin a rally. They loaded the bases, and Juan Soto emerged as a pinch-hitter, after he’d been given a rest day to nurse a finger injury.

After Soto’s RBI walk, San Diego was back within a run with only one out. Then Taylor Kohlwey popped harmlessly to third, and Trent Grisham struck out -- and just like that, it was over.

“I don’t know how much closer you can get for a team that’s been struggling for that game,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “We had some opportunities. It felt like we were as close as we could possibly get. And here we are with another one-run loss.”

“Momentum, the fans, everything just feels so positive,” added Bogaerts. “And then the outcome is negative.”

Indeed, Petco Park had whipped into a frenzy when Soto emerged from the dugout. When he walked on four pitches against Pirates closer David Bednar, the noise reached a crescendo.  Afterward, however, Bednar acknowledged pitching around Soto, saying, “I just wasn’t going to give in and let him beat us.”

A savvy strategy as it turns out. That the Padres were left with Kohlwey, a 29-year-old career Minor Leaguer, in a potentially season-changing spot is indicative of the team’s roster construction. The Padres began the season with a bench featuring David Dahl, Rougned Odor, Nelson Cruz and Matt Carpenter. Dahl, Odor and Cruz have since been designated for assignment. Carpenter, who is hitting .166, remained on the bench (and his absence spoke volumes).

Of course, if the Padres’ biggest offensive deficiency is the lack of a DH-type bat, there’s an avenue to address that issue. The Trade Deadline looms six days away. Right now, with the Padres six games back in the NL Wild Card race, it remains unclear whether they plan to buy or sell -- or some combination of both. 

In reality, the Padres’ path might be contingent upon their performance. Which was why Bogaerts pushed back when it was suggested to him that the organization’s decision-making was out of his control.

“If we swept these guys, it probably would’ve been different,” Bogaerts said. “To an extent, it kind of is in our control.”

The Padres have four games left before the Deadline to assert themselves as the contenders they feel they are -- as the buyers that so many in this organization would prefer to be. 

But come what may at the Deadline, Machado offered this bit of resolve:

“We’re going to be contenders until we’re out,” he said. “We’re going to play the best baseball we can possibly play ‘til the end, whenever that day comes.”

Unless the Padres can do something to change their results in close games – in these games – that day will come sooner than they’d ever imagined possible.