Darvish labors late in return from injured list

July 21st, 2021

ATLANTA -- When the Padres orchestrated a December trade for , they knew they'd landed an ace to sit atop their rotation, but they didn’t think they’d be asking him to carry the load quite like this.

Darvish has been the Padres’ best pitcher this year, an All-Star-caliber starter whose 105 first-half innings were easily the most on the team. But he's also been one of only two reliable starters (alongside Joe Musgrove) in a rotation that once looked like it might be one of the deepest in baseball.

As the first half approached its conclusion, Darvish began feeling the effects of his workload -- back tightness, followed by hip tightness, with a nasty head cold mixed in. He was brilliant for 16 starts, then allowed 10 runs in nine innings over his last two, before landing on the injured list. Because of the break, Darvish wouldn’t miss a turn in the rotation, but he didn’t make the trip to Colorado for All-Star festivities, and his first start in the second half was bumped back -- a needed, and deserved, chance for Darvish to reset.

Darvish returned to the mound in the Padres’ 2-1 loss to the Braves on Tuesday night at Truist Park, and was mostly sharp. He allowed two runs on four hits over 5 2/3 innings, though he labored in the sixth, allowing Freddie Freeman’s go-ahead home run before hitting Austin Riley and walking Stephen Vogt to end his night.

“Physically there were no issues tonight,” Darvish said. “Just because of the health of the body, I think I was able to do a lot more than I had been able to the last couple games.”

It wasn't Darvish's best start by any means, but it was the type of effort the Padres haven't gotten much of lately. No member of the San Diego rotation has turned in a quality start since July 2, and although this one didn’t qualify, it's as close as Darvish could’ve come.

More than any numbers, Darvish said he feels like himself again, and that’s so utterly important to the Padres’ success this season. It’s hard to overstate Darvish’s value. If the Padres were to land in a winner-take-all Wild Card Game, it’d probably be Darvish taking the mound. If, instead, they’re going to mount a charge for the National League West crown, it’ll be Darvish leading the way in the rotation.

“The All-Star break was more about rehab for me, trying to get my body to heal up and get it to a better place,” Darvish said. “I feel good heading into the later part of the season. I feel like things are starting to come together.”

The Padres can breathe a sigh of relief on that front, at least. Behind Darvish, things are not quite so steady. Musgrove was solid for most of the first three months. He’s labored in his last four starts. And after those two ... who knows?

There’s a reason starting pitching is general manager A.J. Preller’s top priority before next week’s Trade Deadline. Blake Snell and Chris Paddack have been wildly inconsistent, and both Ryan Weathers (right ankle fracture) and Dinelson Lamet (right forearm inflammation) are on the IL.

Ultimately, that’s what made Tuesday’s loss so difficult to swallow. When Darvish is on the mound, the Padres like their chances. They’d won 14 of his 18 starts. But their offense sputtered against Braves right-hander Touki Toussaint on Tuesday night.

“He gave us what we needed tonight,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said of Darvish. “I thought he gave us some depth, some length into the game. … We weren’t good enough offensively tonight.”

The Padres mounted a bit of a threat in the eighth inning, when Fernando Tatis Jr. singled and reached second on Jake Cronenworth’s groundout. But Manny Machado sent a deep drive that was run down by Guillermo Heredia on the warning track to end the inning.

If there was one game they had to have, it was this one, with Darvish on the mound. Now, the Padres face the prospect of a day-night doubleheader on Wednesday with the slumping Paddack set for Game 1 and unheralded rookie Reiss Knehr for Game 2.

With the rival Dodgers and Giants playing each other this week, every win means the Padres gain ground on someone. But every loss means the opposite.

Judging by the current state of the NL, it seems likely that two of those three will find themselves in a very rare cauldron -- a Wild Card Game against a rival. The Padres would prefer to avoid that. But losses like this one inch them closer to that reality, and if it comes to fruition, maybe, just maybe, they have the right man for the job.