Can the Padres weather Tatis' suspension in a tight WC race?

August 14th, 2022

WASHINGTON -- As quickly as they learned of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s season-ending suspension, the Padres vowed to move on without their unavailable superstar, at least in 2022. Their goals remain the same. Their expectations remain the same. And so, of course, does their roster, since Tatis had been sidelined all year by injury.

From San Diego’s perspective, the roster is already more than capable of getting the Padres where they want to be, come October. Now it’s about proving it.

“There is some finality in what we know we have here, for the next six weeks or so and until the end of the season,” said manager Bob Melvin, who connected with Tatis by phone before Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Nationals. “I think we’re pretty galvanized already. Last night, some guys spoke their minds, and in these situations that doesn’t always happen.”

How well the Padres ultimately weather the loss, only time will tell. Since hearing the news at least, they are 1-1. Yu Darvish allowed back-to-back homers in the sixth, and Juan Soto’s homecoming was complicated by an overturned call at the plate as San Diego watched a winnable game slip away in the nation’s capital. The Padres’ lead for the top National League Wild Card spot slipped to one game over Milwaukee, which beat St. Louis in 10 innings.

“If that’s an out, we’re still in the game,” said Melvin, who was ejected for arguing the overturned call. “You can always go back and dissect the game, and certainly we'd like to have scored a few more runs. But I thought it was a good play.”

The key decision came in the seventh, when Soto appeared to cut down César Hernández attempting to score on Victor Robles’ two-out single to right in a tie game. But the Nationals challenged the call, arguing that catcher Austin Nola did not give Hernández a lane to reach the plate. Ruling umpires in New York agreed, nullifying Soto’s assist and awarding Washington the go-ahead run. It stood as the game-winner, burning San Diego in a similar situation it benefited from in its 13-5 win over the Rockies on Aug. 2.

Rule 6.01 states:

“Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.”

“My understanding is if you're straddling the plate or giving him any part of the plate to slide to, it is not blocking the plate,” Melvin said.

To a man, the Padres touted the strength and depth of their revamped lineup, even without Tatis in the fold, as the main reason they’ll be able to weather his continued absence. But even with Soto, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury, it’s a unit still figuring things out. San Diego managed little timely hitting Saturday, going 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position, despite Manny Machado and Trent Grisham homers. The team scored 30 runs in its three games prior to Saturday, but only 10 runs combined in the past six games otherwise.

Few individual Padres are impacted more by the suspension news than Grisham, as Tatis was expected to play center field at least part-time upon his return. Now that job is clear again full-time for Grisham, a former Gold Glove winner who has struggled offensively all season. That he’s heating up at the plate provided Saturday’s loss with a silver lining. Five of Grisham’s 15 homers have come in his past 13 games.

“He’s swinging great,” Melvin said. “You look at his overall numbers, the average doesn't look good but the production does. We've talked about him maybe coming around at the right time and providing some power at the bottom of the lineup.”

Still, overcoming the loss of Tatis will be a historic challenge. The superstar’s suspension makes him just the third player since the end of World War II to finish in the top three in MVP voting and then miss the next season. The others are Moises Alou (1998-99, torn ACL) and Sandy Koufax (1966-67, retirement).

But perhaps San Diego can do it. The Padres were 14th in MLB in runs last season, when Tatis had 42 homers and 97 RBIs. Yet they’re 10th in MLB in runs this season without him and mostly before Soto, who chipped in another RBI single in his second game back in Washington.

“We’ve got to continue doing what we’ve been doing all year,” Machado said. “All we can worry about and control is what we can do, which is stay on the lane and keep riding that wave, like we’ve been doing, and play good baseball.”