SAN DIEGO — There was an apocalyptic quality to Saturday’s games here, and you could have made the case it had little to do with the baseball. Eighty-four years after a tropical storm last made landfall in Southern California, Hurricane Hilary was bearing down on the region, the San Diego Padres were hosting the Arizona Diamondbacks in a hastily scheduled day-night doubleheader and the thick clouds over Petco Park blocked out the sun from the start.
Then, for the beleaguered home team, there was the baseball. If Saturday did not officially signal the end times for the 2023 Padres, it came closer than any deflating weekend before it.
Left fielder Juan Soto, on base in the first game of the doubleheader, was picked off. Manager Bob Melvin tried to squeeze another out from rookie spot starter Matt Waldron and promptly watched former Padres outfielder Tommy Pham smash a two-run homer. Soto, at bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, narrowly missed hitting a grand slam that would have given San Diego just its second walk-off win of the year. The Padres instead lost 6-4 before losing again in an 8-1 nightcap that saw them commit two errors, Soto get doubled off first base after losing track of the number of outs and Nick Martinez serve up a grand slam that sent much of the crowd flooding toward the exits.
“It was a long, miserable day,” Melvin said. “Certainly not what we expected, what we wanted.”
— Allison Edmonds (@aedmondstv) August 19, 2023
The doubleheader sweep plunged the Padres (59-66) to seven games under .500 for the first time since July 3. It clinched the season series for the Diamondbacks (64-61), who also secured a crucial wild-card tiebreaker between themselves and a San Diego club that remains technically in playoff contention.
Somehow. The Padres are 5 1/2 games back of the National League’s final wild-card spot. At the moment, they must hurdle at least three teams, including Arizona. They’re also only a half-game ahead of a New York Mets team that, unlike the Padres, sold at the trade deadline.
“It sucks, man,” said Xander Bogaerts, who homered for San Diego’s lone run Saturday night. “These are the chances that we need … and the teams that we’re trying to reach, they’re right in front of us and so far helping us out by losing, and we’re just not able to capitalize.”
The Padres, at this rate, could soon be reduced to chasing a more modest goal: To finish .500 or better, they need to win at least 22 of their last 37 games. Earlier this week, they completed their best 37-game stretch of the season by going 20-17.
Recent events only made Saturday more torturous. Tuesday, Gary Sánchez hit San Diego’s first grand slam of 2023. Wednesday, the Padres won a series against the first-place Baltimore Orioles. Thursday, they lost a series opener to the Diamondbacks but could take relative comfort in their unluckiest offensive performance yet. Friday, Fernando Tatis Jr. unleashed his team’s collective frustration with a late home run and an emphatic bat flip.
Then, Saturday, the Padres fell a few feet short of their first walk-off victory since April 3 against these same Diamondbacks. Soto’s ninth-inning drive in the afternoon game landed in Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s glove, just shy of the left-field wall. In a second, the home dugout went from hopeful anticipation to familiar dejection. Several hours later, Soto sought to put a positive spin on the near-win.
“I hit it pretty well,” Soto said. “I thought I got enough to hit it over the wall, but it didn’t go. That’s how good teams lose, you know? Grinding all the way until the last out.”
The evening, though, had brought a familiar sight: a pricey conglomeration of talent losing without much of a fight. The Diamondbacks and their mediocre bullpen pitched a bullpen game and came away with a lopsided victory. The top four hitters in the Padres’ lineup combined to go 0-for-13. With one out in the bottom of the fourth, Soto took off from first base on a deep fly ball hit by Manny Machado, rounded second base and didn’t stop until it was too late. He was doubled off first base.
“I thought (Machado) got it all, but I made a mistake. It was all me,” Soto said. “I forgot about the outs and everything and just ran into it.”
Saturday, as long and miserable as it was, did not go down as a complete failure. For a few innings in the second game, perhaps the most brilliant sunset seen this season at Petco Park broke through the clouds to the west. And in the fourth inning of the first game, Matt Carpenter lined a tying, two-out single into right field.
It was Carpenter’s first hit since July 16 and his first RBI since June 30. With Garrett Cooper nursing a jammed wrist, Carpenter was making his first start since July 23. It has been a striking period of inactivity for a 37-year-old designated hitter who is slugging .304, who received a $12 million guarantee in December and who has come to represent another questionable, counterproductive investment by a front office that has made more than several of those.
“Baseball is a game that requires repetition to be sharp, so it’s certainly been a challenge,” Carpenter said late Saturday afternoon. “But you just do whatever you can to put your work in as much as you can and try to be ready.”
A couple of minutes later, the veteran was speaking about his belief in a $250 million roster and the bizarre nature of this season. He cited the Padres’ 0-10 record in extra innings and their lack of a single grand slam until this week. He pointed to the law of averages, a principle that particularly applies in a 162-game campaign. He admitted his personal optimism, the kind of optimism that has become tougher and tougher to justify.
“Until that final out is made in the last game, I’m not gonna not believe in this group,” Carpenter said. “I think at any point, if there’s any club in Major League Baseball that can go on a 15-game winning streak it’d be this one.”
Carpenter, at least, was speaking with some relevant experience. A little less than two years ago, he was a member of the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals team that went from being on the outside of the postseason picture to winning 17 games in a row and erasing months of underachievement.
Still, this also remains relevant: Those Cardinals had shown glimpses with five winning streaks of at least four games before September. (The 2023 Padres remain the only team in the majors that hasn’t won four games in a row.) And while they were authoring a miracle, the 2021 Padres were in the throes of an all-time collapse.
The next spring, owner Peter Seidler acknowledged his own optimistic nature.
“That said,” Seidler added, “if you’re going to fall off a cliff like we did last year, you might as well make it dramatic. And we did. I think that was a once-in-a-century what I’ll call learning experience for all of us.”
Almost two full seasons later, the Padres have basked in the glow of a run to the 2022 National League Championship Series. Coming off another blockbuster winter, they have reveled in the adulation of a city starving for its first title. Yet they were somewhat fortunate to have last fall’s run break up what continues to be decades of regular-season ineptitude.
Since June 17, 2022, the Padres have gone 107-115. This year has been less of an abrupt nosedive and more of a slow-motion train wreck. There has been limited evidence that the front office has sufficiently learned from its mistakes. Or that this roster can get back on track before it’s too late, though the Padres still insist it isn’t.
“We just got to keep digging,” Melvin said. “We put ourselves in this position and continue to. So, just keep fighting till you get it right.”
“You can think anything that you want, but you got to … forget about what other people think and just (go) day by day,” Soto said. “Forget about the whole season. Just come to win and go 1-0 every day.”
“I mean, it’s never over till it’s over,” Bogaerts said. “There’s been weird things that have happened in this game before. A lot of teams lose divisions, lose their leads going into September and stuff like that. … It’s not like there’s 10 more games left.”
Saturday, it just felt like there were.
(Top photo of Fernando Tatis Jr. reacting after lining out in the fourth inning of the second game of the doubleheader: Brandon Sloter / Associated Press)