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MLB

Fernando Tatis Jr. Can Do It All, And Might Have To

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - AUGUST 15: Fernando Tatis Jr #23 of the San Diego Padres waits to bat against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on August 15, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Fernando Tatis Jr. has gone on the injured list three times this season. And all three times, including Sunday in Arizona, he has homered in his first game upon returning. “Just make them remember why they miss you,” he joked.

The MVP favorite—despite all the games missed with injuries—seemed like he was making up for lost time. Tatis put on a show, homering twice as he went 4-for-5 with four RBI as the Padres avoided a four-game sweep and beat the Diamondbacks 8-2. With the win, San Diego stayed 2.5 games up on Cincinnati for the second wild card.

Perhaps even more relevant for the long-term, Tatis played right field, the first outfield start of his major-league career. Tatis’s defense at shortstop has generally been … adventurous, let’s say, and while he’s still young enough to sort things out there, his future probably lies in a full-time move to the outfield. Not that this is the start of that, the Padres insist.

“It’s not that he’s moving to the outfield permanently or anything like that,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said before the game. “What we’ve talked to him about is that it will be combination getting him in the lineup and about our team and what may fit with our club. It is an idea that he brought up in terms of going to the outfield and something he wants to do. He’s obviously a very good athlete and can play all over the field.”

It was an uneventful game in right for Tatis, who recorded three putouts. His hitting is the thing, of course, and the Padres have been desperate for it. They hit just nine home runs over the 13 games he was out, and in their last 10 have averaged 3.6 runs per game. No disrespect to Tyler Gilbert, but: They got no-hit by Tyler damn Gilbert. San Diego is simply a different team with Tatis in the lineup, statistically but also atmospherically. His pair of Sunday dingers pushed his NL-leading total to 33, despite having missed roughly a collective month of games. “Just Fernando being Fernando,” said Eric Hosmer, who not 20 hours earlier was giving the dreaded clubhouse speech about players getting their shit together. Was the substance of the speech “Tatis is back tomorrow, everyone relax”? Probably not overtly, but still.

It’d be nice if Tatis could pitch, though. Blake Snell has been unpredictable as he’s gotten his ERA “down” to 4.80. Chris Paddack is on the injured list with a strained oblique. Yu Darvish just joined him on IL after suffering back tightness. The Padres have flaws, and only most of them can be solved by Tatis’s bat.

This Padres season, the first of what promise to be many “go-for-it” seasons, has been kind of hard to gauge. Is it a disappointment that they are just hanging on to the last wild card slot? Sure. Is it a surprise that they’re so far behind the stacked Dodgers and world-beating Giants? Not really. They are, like so many teams, flawed and perhaps fatally inconsistent, but with a higher ceiling than most. Much of that ceiling comprises scenarios like Sunday, where Fernando Tatis Jr. outhits the entire opposing lineup. And much of that inconsistency starts to get magnified, for better and worse, as fall approaches and every game becomes more weighty. Each win, each loss, each at-bat matters just a little bit more than the last. The Padres will go as far as Tatis takes them, and though he can’t do it alone, sometimes it sure as hell seems like he might.