CHICAGO — It was mid-March, and Manny Machado had just learned that his teammate and fellow Padres cornerstone Fernando Tatis Jr. was set to miss significant time because of a fracture in his left wrist.
Machado, even keel as ever, made a prediction:
“When he does put on that uniform, we’re going to be in a good situation. In a good place to welcome him. You don’t win a championship in the first three months of the season. You could put yourself in a really good position. … That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
And, boy, are they doing it.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Padres announced that Tatis has still not been cleared to resume swinging a bat, following the latest round of imaging on his ailing wrist. On Tuesday night, they won another game without him — a come-from-behind 12-5 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“Every guy is pulling on the rope in the same direction,” said second baseman Jake Cronenworth, who notched his second consecutive three-hit night. “Hopefully, we get [Tatis] back soon, and he can give us a little spark. But the guys are playing really well right now, and we just keep building every night off what we’re doing.”
When Machado made his prediction three months ago, it seemed a tad optimistic. This was a team coming off a 79-win season, losing its best player from the previous year, in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. And yet, with the victory Tuesday, the Padres remained in a virtual tie for first place with the Dodgers.
“It’s been hard being on the sideline,” said Tatis, who worked out on the field before the game. “But I’m just proud of my team. We’re one of the best teams in baseball without me.”
In a different time and place, news of a delay in Tatis’ recovery would’ve felt organizationally crushing. Tatis is the Padres’ preeminent superstar, one of the most exciting players in the entire sport.
But Machado was astute in his March assessment of Tatis’ injury, even as the rest of the baseball world seemed panicked. The Padres weren’t going to win any 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 a lot less pressing.
“We’re expecting to have him back — it’s just a matter of when,” Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller said earlier in the afternoon. “I don’t think it changes like, ‘Hey, we need to do something from a roster standpoint.’ The guys, they’ve played well, and we’re finding a lot of ways to win games.”
For the most part, it was pitching and defense that carried San Diego during Tatis’ prolonged absence. But on Tuesday, the offense showed what it’s capable of. Left-hander Sean Manaea exited after four-plus innings, his shortest start of the season. The Padres, who had yet to overcome a deficit of more than three runs, came roaring back.
Luke Voit homered, doubled and drove in five runs. Jorge Alfaro homered, as well, and was one of six Padres with multiple hits. For the second consecutive night, the Padres pounced on a weary Cubs bullpen after scoring only one run against their starter.
“We just believe in each other,” center fielder Trent Grisham said. “It’s an accumulation of a lot of things, but it boils down to: We believe we’re in every game. We know our pitching staff’s got us. Then we’ve got nine tries.”
Among Padres starters, only Machado went hitless. Cubs center fielder Christopher Morel robbed Machado with a brilliant diving catch in the ninth, keeping Machado one hit shy of his milestone 1,500th career hit.
In Tatis’ absence, Machado has been the steadying force the Padres needed him to be. He put up MVP-caliber numbers while the rest of the offense struggled. Now, the rest of that group — Voit and Cronenworth in particular — has begun to carry its weight.
So what happens next? Eventually, the Padres will add Tatis, one of the sport’s most impactful players at a position where they haven’t gotten much production this season. They’re already a first-place team, off to the best 63-game start in franchise history. Is it possible they could get even better?
“We’ve still got reinforcements coming,” Grisham said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are hungry and a lot of guys that believe in one another. Who knows where it could take us?”