9th inning vexes Padres after Darvish throws 6 hitless

April 8th, 2022

PHOENIX -- Opening Day began early Thursday morning with the Padres swinging a trade to land the closer they'd been searching for. It ended with them perhaps wishing they’d done so one day sooner.

For eight innings on Thursday night, the San Diego pitching staff stifled the Arizona offense -- including six brilliant, no-hit frames from starter Yu Darvish. The ninth inning, with the newly acquired Taylor Rogers unavailable to pitch, was a different story.

Rogers, who joined the team on Thursday afternoon after being dealt from Minnesota, had thrown a heavy bullpen session on Wednesday. The Twins, after all, were slated to have an off-day. In his place, the Padres called on rookie Robert Suarez with a two-run lead in the ninth. Suarez walked a pair, threw a wild pitch and hit a batter, before Craig Stammen replaced him and surrendered a walk-off three-run homer to Seth Beer, capping a gut-punch of a 4-2 loss on Opening Day.

“We felt good going into the ninth,” said new Padres manager Bob Melvin, following his first game at the helm. “Sometimes you never know with a pitcher that hasn’t pitched here before, and [he] obviously had a little bit of nerves and we had to go get somebody else.”

Suarez was the Padres’ presumed closer for much of the spring, sporting easy fastball velocity and a track record of excellent command. In Japan last season, he faced 229 hitters, allowing only six unintentional walks, one wild pitch and no hit batters. Those numbers made the results Thursday all the more stunning.

Suarez’s first seven pitches were out of the strike zone. Christian Walker reached on a four-pitch walk, and Pavin Smith on a five-pitch walk. After Suarez got ahead of Carson Kelly, he plunked him with a changeup, loading the bases. According to STATS, Suarez became the first pitcher to face at least three batters, walk or hit all of them and take the loss in his debut since Frank Dupee of the Chicago White Stockings in 1901. 

“Maybe the game was a little faster,” Suarez said. “That’s on me to make my adjustments and make sure that the next outing is better and that the results are better, as well.”

The ending was certainly unfair on Darvish, who made a small bit of history as the only starter in National League history to pitch at least six innings on Opening Day without allowing a hit. Darvish threw a significantly higher rate of fastballs than usual, and his deep blend of breaking pitches played seamlessly off of them.

“It really makes it tough hitting, whenever a guy with the stuff that he has is locating his fastball,” said catcher Austin Nola. “It was like a dart tonight. He could throw it away, up, in, down.”

Coming off an abbreviated Spring Training, however, the Padres were never going to push Darvish too far past 90 pitches. He had thrown 92 after six frames when Melvin went to his bullpen, calling for left-hander Tim Hill against the lefty-hitting Smith.

“I think I probably came out at the right time,” Darvish said.

Smith, the first batter Hill faced, shot a single to the opposite field, ending the bid at a combined no-no. But Hill and Pierce Johnson kept the D-backs off the board in the seventh and eighth innings.

The Padres offense, meanwhile, had worked deep counts all night. The Padres scored their first run in the third inning by drawing four walks against starter Madison Bumgarner. They would record seven walks in total but never registered a major breakthrough.

As such, the lead was tenuous entering the ninth -- a precarious spot for a pitcher making his big league debut. Suarez recorded 42 saves last season for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan and was viewed as an impact signing when the Padres landed him just before the lockout. But his first big league outing unraveled quickly.

“I try to always remain positive,” said Suarez, no stranger to life as a closer, having spent the past two seasons in the role. “For me, it’s important to turn the page. Hopefully, the results next time around are better.”

With Suarez unable to locate, Melvin called upon Stammen, one of the Padres’ most reliable relievers in 2021. Stammen’s first curveball bounced in the dirt, allowing the D-backs’ first run to score. His second caught a bit too much plate -- and ended up in the third row.

Stammen originally got loose in the bottom of the sixth, with Darvish approaching his 90-pitch limit. He sat back down for a few frames, then was forced to get hot again, with Suarez teetering.

“Yeah, that’s a tough thing to do,” Stammen said. “But I think that’s why I’m on the team -- to be able to do that.”

As for Suarez, whose stuff remains electric, and whose track record remains impressive …

“He’s going to have a very successful year,” Stammen said. “Hopefully, sooner rather than later we forget about today and move on.”