SAN DIEGO – In the early stages of this season, the Padres needed Manny Machado perhaps more than they ever have. They’re without Fernando Tatis Jr. The rest of their offense is struggling and short-handed. It was up to Machado to deliver.
And has Machado ever delivered.
The slugging third baseman entered play Thursday night already leading the Majors with 2.3 wins above replacement, perhaps the sport’s best player over the season’s first month. Then he provided the entirety of the Padres’ offense in their series opener against the Marlins, launching two no-doubt solo home runs in a 2-1 victory at Petco Park.
“He’s a freaking stud, man,” said Padres right-hander Nick Martinez, who pitched seven innings of one-run ball. “He’s a threat every single time he steps up to the plate. And what he does on defense, too, is real special.”
Nobody wins MVP awards in May, of course. But right now, it’d be hard to argue with Machado’s status as the National League’s early favorite. According to both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, he leads the Majors in WAR. Machado has an absurd slash line of .374/.447/.657, while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base.
And he’s doing it all when the Padres needed him most. Luke Voit and Wil Myers have joined Tatis on the injured list. Aside from Eric Hosmer, who has been similarly excellent, the rest of the San Diego lineup has struggled. And yet, the Padres have done just enough offensively to carry the team for a 17-9 record, half a game behind the Dodgers in the NL West.
“Guys aren’t even at 100%, guys aren’t rolling on offense -- that’s dangerous,” Machado said. “When everything does click … it’s going to be dangerous, because we’re winning ballgames like this.”
On Thursday night, the Padres were without manager Bob Melvin, who was dealing with a non-COVID-related illness and watched from the clubhouse. Bench coach Ryan Christenson took the reins in Melvin’s place.
The game followed a familiar script, nonetheless. It was merely the latest example of Machado’s offensive impact on a team that is otherwise reliant on its pitching and defense. The Padres got a brilliant performance from Martinez, who is perhaps solidifying his place in a crowded starting rotation. He allowed just four hits and one walk, tying a career high with seven innings.
Machado provided the entirety of Martinez’s support. He put the Padres on top in the first inning, demolishing a hanging slider from Marlins starter Jesús Luzardo 408 feet to straightaway center. Three innings later, Machado’s second homer was a truly extraordinary piece of hitting. Luzardo hit the inside corner with a 98 mph fastball. Machado managed to turn on it and sent it 424 feet into the second deck in left field.
Afterward, Machado was asked if he was looking for a fastball in that situation. Wryly, he replied, “I’m not going to give you my secrets. ... Then the other team’s going to go out there and know how to pitch me.”
Really though, would it make much difference right now? Machado is hitting just about anything anyone throws him. He’s hitting velocity and spin. He’s hitting up in the zone and down in the zone. (And when it’s not in the zone, he’s laying off, as evidenced by his 11.4% walk rate, a career high.)
Thursday night marked Machado’s ninth career multi-homer game at Petco Park, the most in the stadium’s history. Indeed, his homers tend to come in bunches. He’s locked in right now, and he knows what to do during those hot streaks.
“You just ride the wave,” Machado said, always an apt metaphor considering the city he plays in. “I’ve learned to just ride it. Take what the game gives you, because like it gives you, it’s going to take it away from you at one point. You learn to control that, stay with the same routine every single day.”
Ask around, and that’s what his teammates appreciate most about Machado. He puts up the numbers, because he puts in the work. Some nights he wins games by hitting thunderous home runs. Other nights, he impacts games with savvy baserunning or shrewd defending.
In Pittsburgh last weekend, Machado earned himself a stolen base with a heady play after he’d been picked off. He veered ever so slightly into the first baseman’s throwing lane, and the ball caromed off him and into left field. A night later, he timed a crucial barehand scoop-and-throw perfectly -- a rare example of Machado speeding up his typically methodical internal clock.
“He makes the game look so easy,” Christenson said. “It’s obviously not. The fact that he goes out there and does what he does every single day, gives you great at-bats all the time, is making great plays -- he’s just an all-around great player.”