In 'Slam Diego' birthplace, Tatis seeks history

October 6th, 2020

The last time the Padres rolled into Texas, their season was on the brink. They'd lost five straight games in mid-August, falling below .500 for the first (and only) time all season. Injuries were piling up. Their bullpen was in shambles.

Then worked a 3-0 count and had the audacity to swing with a seven-run lead. You probably know the rest.

Tatis hit a grand slam that echoed across the sport. The Padres entered that night 11-12. They’ve gone 28-12 since, including their first playoff series victory in 22 years.

"We just found a way to bring everything together -- the offense, the pitching, the defense, everything," Tatis said Monday, recalling that fateful series in Arlington. "Everything started clicking in the one moment. We just hopped on the train and followed the same track until the end of the season."

The Padres are back where it began this week. They open a best-of-five National League Division Series against the rival Dodgers on Tuesday night at Globe Life Field.

Tatis has already authored one indelible moment in Arlington. Now, he's looking for a few more.

"Real players make real history in the postseason," Tatis said.

The Padres made their share of it in the regular season, too. In the three games after Tatis' blast, Wil Myers, Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer also hit grand slams -- the first time in MLB history that any team had done so in four straight games. Two days later, Jake Cronenworth made it five in six.

Tatis' grand slam would spark a seven-game winning streak, and "Slam Diego" was born.

But those good vibes weren't exactly instantaneous. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on Tatis' 3-0 hack, and it wasn't all positive.

The Rangers were unhappy with Tatis for swinging on 3-0, ahead by seven runs, contending that he'd broken one of the sport's unwritten rules. Padres manager Jayce Tingler publicly indicated it was a "teachable moment" because Tatis had missed a take sign.

The rest of the baseball world greeted that backlash with backlash. Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench chimed in. They wanted to see one of the sport's most exciting young players unconstrained.

As if Tatis would ever play this game constrained.

While the outside world raged about unwritten rules, Tatis was his usual affable self.

That night, on the team bus, Tatis grabbed a seat in the row behind his skipper, no signs of any purported drama. Rather than the grand slam -- or the missed take sign -- talk on the bus centered around two other pitches in that very at-bat.

Tatis had been working hard to limit his chases -- particularly breaking pitches below the strike zone and particularly against right-handed pitchers. Padres coaches raved about the way Tatis laid off two filthy sliders from Rangers right-hander Juan Nicasio. He’d truly earned his 3-0 count.

Then the conversation shifted away from baseball entirely.

"I just was enjoying my night," Tatis recalled. "I hit two home runs in one game, and that was about it. There was a lot of noise -- blah, blah, blah. I just didn't want to get caught into that. Come the next day, play the game I know how to play."

Tatis broke more unwritten rules the very next day. With the Padres leading by six runs, Tatis broke for third base with two outs against Rangers reliever Ian Gibaut. A day earlier, it was Gibaut who threw a fastball behind Machado on the next pitch after Tatis' grand slam. (He would later serve a two-game suspension.) Gibaut was caught off guard, and his throw to third was a split-second late. Tatis slid in safely.

The message was clear: Tatis wasn’t about to change anything about his relentless style of play. The rest of the baseball world would have to adjust to him.

That morning, Tingler had already walked back some of his comments. He acknowledged being wrong about giving Tatis the take sign in the first place.

"Obviously, it wasn't the right call," Tingler quipped. "He took one swing of the bat and got four runs."

That weekend, Tatis found himself in another 3-0 count, his first since he'd riled the baseball world. The Padres led the Astros, 11-2.

Tatis crouched in the right-handed batters box. Again, he didn't look to his third base coach. This time, Tatis stared directly into the Padres' dugout, in Tingler's direction, perhaps looking for guidance.

A moment later, Tatis stood up and dug in. He unleashed another ferocious swing. With a nine-run lead this time, Tatis sent a 109 mph missile roaring up the middle. Astros second baseman Jose Altuve made a diving catch, and Tatis chuckled to himself as he walked back to the dugout.