CHICAGO — It was mid-March, and Manny Machado had just learned that his teammate and Padres cornerstone Fernando Tatis Jr. would miss a significant time with a fracture in his left wrist.
Machado, confident as ever, made a prediction:
“If he puts that uniform on, we’ll be in a good position. In a good place to welcome him. In the first three months of the season you don’t win a championship really good position. … We will try that.”
And boy do they do it.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Padres announced that Tatis still hasn’t received clearance to swing a racquet again following the latest imaging on his ailing wrist. On Tuesday night, they won another game without him – a 12-5 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“Every guy pulls the rope in the same direction,” said second baseman Jake Cronenworth, who scored his second straight three-goal night. “Hopefully we get it [Tatis] back soon, and he may give us a little spark. But the guys are playing really well at the moment and we continue to build on what we’re doing every night.”
When Machado made his prediction three months ago, she seemed a bit optimistic. This was a team coming off a 79-win season and losing their best player of the year in one of baseball’s toughest divisions. And yet the Padres remained virtually level with the Dodgers for first place with Tuesday’s win.
“It was tough being on the sidelines,” said Tatis, who trained on the field before the game. “But I’m just proud of my team. Without me, we’re one of the best teams in baseball.”
At another time and place, news of a delay in Tatis’ recovery would have felt organizationally overwhelming. Tatis is the Padres’ towering superstar, one of the most exciting players in all of sport.
But Machado was perceptive in his March assessment of Tatis’ injury even as the rest of the baseball world appeared to be panicking. The Padres would not win a playoff series in mid-June. They could only put themselves in a solid position for Tatis’ return whenever that would be.
We still don’t have an answer. But the question suddenly seems much less pressing.
“We expect to have him back — it’s just a matter of when,” AJ Preller, president of Padres baseball operations, said earlier this afternoon. “I don’t think it changes like, ‘Hey, we have to do something from a roster standpoint.’ The lads played well and we find a lot of opportunities to win games.”
For the most part, it was pitching and defense that carried San Diego during Tatis’ long absence. But on Tuesday the offense showed what they can do. Left-hander Sean Manaea retired after more than four innings, his shortest start to the season. The Padres, still more than three runs down, came back roaring.
Luke Voit hit homer, doubled and drove in five runs. Jorge Alfaro also scored and was one of six Padres with multiple strikes. For the second straight night, the Padres pounced on a tired Cubs bullpen after scoring just one run against their starter.
“We just believe in each other,” said center fielder Trent Grisham. “It’s an accumulation of many things, but it boils down to this: we believe that we are in every game. We know our pitching team got us. Then we have nine tries.”
Among the Padres starters, only Machado was unsuccessful. Cubs midfielder Christopher Morel robbed Machado with a brilliant jump catch in ninth, keeping Machado one hit off his 1,500. Career hit removed.
In Tatis’ absence, Machado was the supportive force the Padres needed from him. He put up MVP caliber numbers while the rest of the offense struggled. Now the rest of that group – notably Voit and Cronenworth – have started to carry its weight.
What happens next? Finally, the Padres will add Tatis, one of the sport’s most influential players in a position where they haven’t performed much this season. They’re already a first-place team and have had the best 63-game start in franchise history. Is it possible that they will get even better?
“We still have reinforcements,” Grisham said. “We have a lot of guys who are hungry and a lot of guys who believe in each other. Who knows where it might lead us?”