SAN DIEGO -- The first half of the Padres' 2021 schedule has been relentless -- more so than for any other team in baseball. On Sunday, San Diego will head into the All-Star break, having played 93 games, the most in the Majors.
The nature of that schedule has posed all sorts of challenges. But the Padres, for the most part, have weathered every storm.
It hasn't been easy. At times, the Padres have been taxed. At times, they've needed to dig deep into their organizational depth to find a way. Like on Friday night, when they promoted Reiss Knehr from Double-A for his big league debut and piggybacked him with fellow callup Miguel Diaz -- then beat the Rockies, 4-2, in their series opener at Petco Park.
“It seems like every guy that comes up, no matter who it is -- whether it’s a position player or a pitcher -- they’re ready to go,” said Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth. “Reiss was making his debut in front of a pretty good crowd tonight, maybe a little nervous, just like a lot of us were that first time. But he grinded through some stuff and kept us in that game.”
Knehr fell victim to some poor defense early, but he limited the Rockies to two runs over 3 2/3 innings. Diaz followed with 2 2/3 scoreless frames, lowering his ERA to 2.30. He needed only 26 pitches to do so -- 23 of them strikes.
“The best I’ve seen him pound the zone,” said Tingler. “When he got sent out, that’s what we talked about. The strikes were a little bit of a struggle. For him to go back, have a little bit of work, come back, and then just pound the zone -- it was so big.”
Knehr's start on Friday night came out of necessity, with the Padres left scrambling after their decision to place Blake Snell on the injured list. Snell has been dealing with the effects of a stomach ailment since the team's trip to Cincinnati last month. He gritted through four innings in Philadelphia but wasn't quite himself. The Padres didn't see any reason to overexert Snell, so they decided to give him a respite through the All-Star break.
It was a prudent decision with the big-picture view in mind. But it led to a bit of a scramble to find a starter for Friday’s game. Organizationally, the Padres held discussions on Thursday afternoon, and farm director Sam Geaney made his pitch.
“We had some decent options,” Tingler said. “And Sam pretty strongly recommended Reiss right now, the way he’s been throwing it.”
Knehr, who had posted a 3.90 ERA in 11 starts at Double-A San Antonio, ran into trouble in the second inning. Center fielder Trent Grisham couldn’t come up with Trevor Story’s line-drive double to open the frame. Knehr walked the next three hitters he faced, forcing in a run and loading the bases with no outs. But he stopped the bleeding right there.
“Definitely some butterflies, looking at the stands and seeing pretty much almost a full stadium,” Knehr said. “But once you get going and you get in your groove and that first pitch goes -- I felt great.”
Knehr wasn’t dominant, but he was good enough -- and, in a way, that’s been a recurring storyline of the Padres’ first half, organizationally. When they’ve needed to, they’ve found the right pieces from deep within their system to make it work.
When five players landed on the COVID-related IL in May, they won 10 of 11 games before they had their full roster back. Their bullpen has dealt with setback after setback, yet it has been one of the best relief units in the sport, leading the Majors with a 2.87 ERA.
There's a flip side, of course, to San Diego’s first-half grind. Things ease up in August and September. The Padres will have more second-half off-days than any other team in the Majors -- just as they embark on what's sure to be a frantic finish to this National League West slugfest.
The extra off-days give the Padres some leeway down the stretch. In the first half, they’ve often employed a six-man rotation, and they've gone out of their way to find extra days off for their regular position players. That kind of self-preservation should ease up during the second half, in large part because the schedule affords them some breathing room.
Still, if the Padres need to dive into their organizational depth again, they have every reason to be confident. After a night like Friday -- a victory Tingler perfectly summed up as “a team and organizational win” -- why wouldn’t they be?