'That's Kirby:' Yates digs deep to save No. 36

August 20th, 2019

CINCINNATI -- It was hot in Philadelphia on Saturday night, when threw 18 pitches and recorded his 34th save. It was even hotter on Sunday, when Yates threw 27 more and recorded save No. 35.

On Monday evening in Cincinnati, it was a muggy 94 degrees at first pitch. Before the game, Padres manager Andy Green asked Yates if he’d be available. Yates didn’t hesitate.

A few hours later, as Green mulled whether to pull starting pitcher Eric Lauer early for a pinch-hitter, he phoned the bullpen to ask the same question. Yates’ response hadn’t changed.

“I felt good enough to get it done,” he said.

Yates got it done. Barely.

The Padres held on for a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Reds on Monday at Great American Ball Park. As much as any other outing, Yates showcased the type of elite closer he’s become.

The veteran right-hander worked his way into serious trouble, allowing a run and loading the bases. Then Yates worked his way out of it, striking out Eugenio Suarez with a filthy split-finger fastball. San Diego had its third straight victory, and Yates had slammed the door on all three.

“Those are the coolest outings, because it just shows his grit, his determination, his mental toughness,” said righty Craig Stammen, who worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning. “He can not feel great. He can be on his third day in a row. He can have every excuse to just be satisfied with his season.

“But he dug down as deep as he could and got their best hitter out.”

Make no mistake, this was an atypical Yates outing. He entered play Monday leading the Majors in both ERA and FIP, while striking out 14.6 hitters per nine innings. From the start, it was clear Yates didn’t have that kind of stuff.

Freddy Galvis, Tucker Barnhart and Josh VanMeter pounded out three consecutive hits, putting the tying and go-ahead runs aboard with one out. Barnhart would later get caught in a rundown between third and home, but Yates proceeded to plunk Jose Iglesias, bringing Suarez to the plate.

“Usually when I get out there, my command is pretty good,” Yates said. “Today it wasn't. It's one of those things you just deal with. Yeah, the arm's a little sluggish. But honestly, it doesn't matter when you're out there. It's not like you can just give up because your arm's sluggish. You've got to find a way.”

Spoken like a true closer.

That, perhaps more than any other reason, is why the Padres want Yates on board so badly in 2020. Even with his contract set to expire after next season, they opted to hold onto the veteran right-hander at the July 31 Trade Deadline. They might even extend him this offseason.

For a young team that expects to contend in 2020 and beyond, a lockdown closer is imperative. San Diego has several promising young bullpen arms, but none with the proven track record of Yates, who now leads the Majors with his 36 saves.

“It doesn’t matter how high-stress the situation is,” Green said. “He still settles in. He still makes big pitches.”

“That’s clutch,” Green added. “That’s Kirby.”

Bullpen brilliance
Through four innings, Lauer had only allowed one run, but his line didn’t quite tell the story.

On a sticky night, Lauer needed 86 pitches to grind through four innings. He’s struggled in the past when facing hitters multiple times in a game. With the top of the Reds’ lineup due up in the fifth -- and Lauer’s spot in the order coming up -- Green had a decision to make.

Never mind that the Padres are planning for a bullpen day on Wednesday afternoon. Green went to his relief corps much earlier than expected.

“That game was there to be won,” Green said. “You want to go aggressively at it. ... Everything played according to script.”

It hasn’t always worked so smoothly. Green has come under fire often this season for his late-game bullpen management. But the first three relievers he called for on Monday were nearly flawless.

Luis Perdomo worked two scoreless frames with four strikeouts. Trey Wingenter and Stammen followed with hitless innings and two strikeouts apiece. Only Yates, the bullpen’s most reliable weapon, ran into any trouble.

It was an impressive showing -- especially considering Matt Strahm and Andres Munoz were unavailable after filling setup roles on Saturday and Sunday in Philadelphia. San Diego's bullpen didn’t allow runs in either of those games.

“That's the way it's supposed to work,” Stammen said. “The more depth your bullpen has, the more wins you can string together.”

Naylor unleashes, nails Suarez
Catcher Francisco Mejia put the Padres on top with a go-ahead solo homer in the top of the fourth inning. Josh Naylor tacked on some insurance with a deep drive to left in the fifth that caromed off Jose Peraza’s glove for a two-base error.

But Naylor’s biggest contribution came with his arm. With two outs in the third, Peraza shot a single into left field. Naylor, a converted first baseman playing his first full season in the outfield, fielded the ball on one hop and came up throwing.

Suarez didn’t have a chance. He was out by 10 feet.

“Last year, I airmailed a lot of stuff because I wasn’t uncomfortable throwing, but it was just different from first base,” Naylor said. “At first base, you just get it and go. In the outfield, you get your arm long and at a down angle.”

No doubt, Naylor unloaded on this throw. His one-hop strike to Mejia was tracked by Statcast at 94.4 mph. That’s the fourth-hardest throw for a Padres outfielder on an assist this season. (Hunter Renfroe owns each of the club's top three.)