Dave Roberts certainly remembers the last time the Padres really believed they had a legitimate shot at catching and passing the Dodgers.
He was the Padres’ bench coach in that optimistic spring of 2015, after new general manager A.J. Preller had loaded up on veterans to take a shot at dethroning the then two-time defending division champs. The Matt Kemp-for-Yasmani Grandal trade at the winter meetings was the centerpiece, but the Padres also brought in Justin Upton, James Shields, Wil Myers, Ian Kennedy and Craig Kimbrel, going for it in one massive plunge.
“Even out here in Arizona for the last month and a half, we’re seeing fans coming to spring training energized,” Preller noted that March in a conversation at the Padres’ Peoria, Ariz., facility. “I think people are hoping for a fun season here in San Diego.”
Uh, no. By June 15 the Padres were a game under .500, Preller fired manager Bud Black and the franchise not only punted on that season but effectively the next three as well. (Even more egregiously for those in San Diego who cared, Roberts – interim manager for one game after Black’s firing – was never interviewed for the Padres’ permanent job. I think you could say he landed on his feet.)
But it has now reached the point where, after years of baseball famine, the Padres legitimately feel they can go toe-to-toe with their tormentors to the north. The Dodgers took two out of three in Petco Park last week, but two of the three games went down to the final out, and in the middle game San Diego’s Dinelson Lamet took a no-hitter into the sixth. Lamet, one of a number of promising young arms in the San Diego system, flirted with a no-hitter again Sunday against Arizona, and he has the stuff to get one – on a team that, in 51-plus years of existence, never has had one of its pitchers throw a no-no.
The Dodgers will miss Lamet in the series that began Monday night at The Ravine. But they do have to face Fernando Tatis Jr., who was named National League Player of the Week Monday after a six-game stretch in which he hit .435 with six home runs, seven runs scored and nine RBIs. In three games against the Dodgers last week he was 4 for 11 with two homers, a double, four RBIs and a stolen base.
This is going to be a continuing saga. Even with the high profile signings of Eric Hosmer two years ago and Manny Machado last year, Tatis is already the face of the Padres – imagine, people in San Diego were saying that about Myers four years ago – and he soon may be one of the faces of baseball as well with his immense talent and effervescence, not to mention a humility that comes from the exposure to his dad’s big league career.
Tatis was acquired when the Padres traded Shields to the White Sox in June of 2016. From that point he was the guy on whose shoulders the success of the Padres’ rebuild rested. It’s safe to say the wait was worth it.
“Every time I get to the park and the game’s about to start, I tell myself it’s time to make history,” Tatis said on a Zoom conference Monday, grouping himself with the Braves’ Ronald Acuña and the Nationals’ Juan Soto as players who are “just hungry.” All three are young Latino players who combine talent with work ethic and competitive drive and more than a smidgen of swagger.
“I remember telling the scout that signed me that when I get out of this game, I would like to be remembered almost like a Dominican Derek Jeter, with all the respect he had in the game, all the World Series he won, and just a lot of the history that he had in this game,” Tatis said. “I would love to see myself like that, you know?”
Roberts remembered seeing video of Tatis as a Class A and Double-A player, and he was already impressed.
“The bloodlines, and you see the skill set, the energy, the acumen, baseball acumen, the swagger, the confidence, all that stuff,” Roberts said Monday. “Pretty easy to see.
“You just got to make quality pitches (against him). He has the ability to slug. He gets on base, he can steal a base. There’s no pitching around him, and you’ve got obviously some talent behind him as well.”
The trick is getting that talent to believe it can make an impact. That falls into the lap of Jayce Tingler, the Padres’ fourth manager since Black’s firing (counting Roberts’ one interim game) and immediate successor to Andy Green.
How much of his job involved convincing this team it could challenge the now seven-time defending division champs? Memory erasure would help. The Dodgers have won the season series nine straight years with a 112-57 edge (including 54-30 in Petco Park). In the last seven seasons the Padres finished a cumulative 168 games behind the Dodgers, including 36 games last season, their third last-place finish in the last four years.
But no, Tingler said in a Zoom conference Monday, his task was more about getting these players to “be the best version” of themselves.
“I think we’re a confident group,” he said. “I think that our group recognizes that when they look to the left or they look to the right, there’s players with real ability around them. … As we improve, I think the guys just deep down in their (hearts) are gonna recognize that we’re a team that can play, and when we’re playing our ‘A’ game, we feel that we can play with anyone.”
A rebuilding project that figured to fully blossom into contender status by 2021 could reach fruition a year early thanks to a short season, an expanded playoff field and one precocious 21-year-old shortstop. And in one early triumph, the Padres look a lot better now that they’re back in brown and gold full time.
But feeling you can compete is one thing. Doing it is another. And that big blue obstacle still stands in the way.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter