Joe Musgrove has a start skipped, and the surging Padres are holding their breath

DENVER — Joe Musgrove has dealt with injuries both new and familiar in this, perhaps his best season so far. Before it began, there was a well-documented weight room accident that resulted in a fractured toe. Then, repeated trips to a hyperbaric chamber and a subsequent trek to the elevation of Mexico City may have contributed to a swollen elbow. An inflamed bursa sac has attended the Padres right-hander throughout 2023, and this is where he has at least some faint experience.

One day in the late aughts, Musgrove was playing defensive end for his Grossmont High football team when another player’s facemask struck him in the elbow, rupturing that same bursa sac. A gifted teenage athlete, Musgrove thought little of it at the time. (He went on to pitch the following spring without much trouble). But all these years later, an old ailment finally resurfaced amid the odd ramp-up to a delayed season debut and the rigors of major-league competition.

“This is kind of the first time I’ve had to deal with it since high school,” Musgrove said last month.

On Wednesday morning, just hours after the Padres acquired welcome depth at the trade deadline, another injury came to light. The team announced Musgrove would not make his scheduled start at Coors Field in the afternoon. Nick Martinez would take the ball instead. And Musgrove, the Padres hoped, would skip only one turn to pitch before returning Tuesday against Seattle.

Musgrove, manager Bob Melvin explained, had felt minor but worsening shoulder stiffness in his past two or three outings. The sensation did not prevent Musgrove from running his streak of quality starts to nine, or from pitching as well as any starter around. Take out his late-April clunker in the lunar conditions of Mexico City, and Musgrove’s ERA would drop from 3.05 to 2.49.

Teammate Blake Snell currently leads all qualifying major leaguers with a 2.50 ERA. Musgrove, contending with elbow bursitis and a sore shoulder, might lead the Padres’ active roster in terms of being banged up.

“He’s been pitching through it,” Melvin said of the newer ailment. “But at this point in time, we just don’t want it to get any worse.”

Joe Musgrove will have at least one start skipped because of shoulder stiffness. (Matt Thomas / San Diego Padres / Getty Images)

Nor can the Padres afford that. They traded Tuesday for, among several others, the oldest player in the league. Rich Hill, 43, is expected to start for his new team Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The alternatives on the 40-man roster are sparse, especially since young lefties Jackson Wolf and Ryan Weathers were dealt away — Wolf in the same deal that brought Hill from Pittsburgh. Michael Wacha, on the injured list with his own shoulder trouble, is targeting a mid-August return from the injured list.

So, with Hill in but Wacha and Musgrove both out at the moment, the Padres will continue holding their breath.

(After trading for Hill, the Padres continued talking to other teams about their starters but ultimately did not find another deal to their liking. The list of targets included Michael Lorenzen, who wound up going from the Tigers to the Angels, and Eduardo Rodriguez, who opted to stay with Detroit by vetoing a deal with the Dodgers.)

They could temporarily exhale late Wednesday afternoon because, for a second straight game, they had played well in lunar conditions while again extracting a heavy toll from their bullpen. Martinez went three innings and 38 pitches — his highest totals since late April, when he was still transitioning out of the starting rotation. Lefty Ray Kerr, newly recalled from Triple A, followed with 2 1/3 innings and 56 pitches — his highest totals since he was still in Seattle’s farm system in 2019. He then gave the ball to Melvin, who proceeded to hand it to Scott Barlow. Barlow, newly arrived in a trade with Kansas City, covered five outs in a game for the first time since May 22.

And the Padres, who got five home runs from their offense, won in an 11-1 drubbing of Colorado. San Diego is 53-54, just one win from being back to .500 for the first time since May 11.

“To go down the way we did the first night (of the series) and then have all the drama and stuff at the trade deadline, good to have a day off (Thursday),” Melvin said. “A little bit exhausting at this point, but nice to finish it out with a really well-played game.”

The torn-down Rockies offered little resistance, but it was also the kind of game the Padres have often struggled to win. San Diego has tended to play down to inferior competition. It helps explain a mediocre record and a decent deficit in the wild-card standings. And it would be much worse if not for the starting rotation.

Padres starters, despite a lack of upper-level depth in the organization, lead the majors with a 3.60 ERA. They lead the National League with 52 quality starts. They are partially led by a Cy Young Award candidate in Snell. But, inside the clubhouse, everyone agrees Musgrove is the pitching staff’s primary leader.

“He’s a stud,” Melvin said.

“He’s a guy that you want to play behind,” Martinez said. “He’s got something about him that’s kind of intangible that makes guys want to play harder. He’s got a whole city behind him. So, we want him ready to go down the stretch.”

Wednesday at Coors Field, Musgrove was nowhere to be found. He had taken a flight back to San Diego the previous night to escape the altitude (and the extra pressure on his joints) and prepare for a potential start early next week. In his absence, Martinez stepped up. One of the team’s most versatile pitchers had been asked Tuesday evening to provide at least two innings in the series finale. Martinez, after getting through two, asked for another. He left the mound with a 3-0 lead.

Kerr then walked three of the first four batters he faced, prompting a visit from pitching coach Ruben Niebla. Kerr recovered to induce an RBI groundout and an inning-ending strikeout. He returned for the bottom of the fifth, surrendered a leadoff double and responded by striking out the side. Melvin, needing just a bit more length after Tuesday’s virtual bullpen game, sent Kerr out for the first batter in the bottom of the sixth. The hard-throwing lefty struck out Ryan McMahon, the Rockies’ best hitter. He left the mound with a 3-1 lead and his biggest workload in years.

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Ryan Kerr struck out six and gave up one run on one hit and three walks in 2 1/3 innings on Wednesday. (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

“After the 30th pitch, I was like, ‘This is kind of fun. Let’s see how far I can go,’” Kerr said. “When (Melvin) told me I had McMahon for one out, I was like, ‘I’m about to go out here and K this guy and let the guy come in after me and shut it down.’”

He was right. Barlow, who awoke at 3 a.m. Wednesday in Kansas City ahead of an early-morning flight, struck out two of the next three batters around a self-produced error. He returned for the bottom of the seventh and retired the side. He left the mound with the same lead he had inherited and the knowledge that he had helped save his new, somewhat-tired bullpen mates.

“I knew pretty much ahead of time, way ahead of time, that I was gonna be used. And so, I was mentally prepared to be in the game,” Barlow said. “Didn’t know exactly what inning, but communication down in the bullpen was excellent. So, it worked out good.”

The Padres generally expect Barlow will work in leverage situations somewhere between the sixth and seventh innings. The 30-year-old, after consecutive seasons as a closer with a sub-three ERA, was in the midst of a down year. His presence and experience should still help in a significant way, particularly if the Padres unlock some of his old form.

If Barlow comes as advertised, it would give the Padres more freedom to perhaps re-extend Martinez’s workload. That, in turn, would create some innings insurance as Wacha and Musgrove work toward returns and Hill settles in. (The Padres are not anticipating much more from the 43-year-old than a fifth or sixth starter.) Martinez, after Wednesday’s game, said he would embrace the opportunity to provide more length. In a hypothetical, how long would he need to build up to consistently working more than one inning?

“I’m there. I’m there already,” said Martinez, who made his first start since April 19. “I was there even before today. Even going a few times a week has kept my workload at a level where I can give them two or three (innings). … If we’re at that point in this year for that, then I’m up for that challenge.”

“It’s been every other day he’s pitched, and he goes out there and gives us three innings again today on a day we needed a starter,” Melvin said. “I can’t say enough about what he’s meant to this team.”

Wednesday’s performance was as thorough of a collective effort as the Padres have submitted in some time. It coincided with a few milestones against an overmatched opponent. Juan Soto, playing on the first anniversary of his blockbuster trade to San Diego, homered in the third. Gary Sánchez homered in the sixth and the ninth to become the first Padres catcher since Mark Parent in 1988 with multiple multi-homer games in one season. And, four batters after Sánchez’s second home run, Fernando Tatis Jr. launched a mammoth home run as San Diego piled on late.

Tatis, playing in his 362nd career game, thus became the fourth-fastest major leaguer to reach 100 home runs. Sánchez remains the third-fastest (355 games).

“With the talent (Tatis) has,” Sánchez said through interpreter Pedro Gutiérrez, “he can easily reach 500.”

Of course, Wednesday was about more than pure talent. The Padres, playing in a ballpark that has often haunted them, found a way to win what was more or less a second consecutive bullpen game. Having won five of six, they appear to be building the momentum that has been largely missing from their season.

“I feel like the last week or last 10 days, we have played probably our best baseball,” Tatis said.

To sustain it, the Padres can draw on some of the confidence gained over two days at Coors Field. But the venues and the competition will soon become much tougher. After Thursday’s offday, they will play 22 straight games against teams currently above .500. Five of those teams are ahead of them in the National League standings.

To chase at least a few of them down, the Padres also need what has buoyed them all season. Yu Darvish will start Friday’s series opener against the Dodgers. Snell will follow on Saturday. Hill should get the ball Sunday. Seth Lugo is scheduled to pitch in a rare Monday series finale. The team hopes Wacha can return during an upcoming stretch of 13 games in 13 days after he goes through one more simulated outing (or maybe a rehab start with Low-A Lake Elsinore).

Tuesday against Seattle, though, is more pressing. The Padres will soon find out if Musgrove, after some extended rest, feels good enough to resume what might be his most impressive season.

“Obviously, losing a guy like Joe for this start is not ideal,” Martinez said. “But again, looking down the road, we want him ready to go for us when games matter the most.”

(Top photo: Orlando Ramirez / Getty Images)

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