Tatis Jr., Padres make baseball fun again in San Diego

San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. smiling
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — Baseball is fun again in San Diego, where the Padres are heading into one of their most anticipated seasons ever.

The main focus is always on electrifying shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who has reached full-blown superstardom and received a $340 million, 14-year contract – the longest in MLB history – without having yet played the equivalent of a full season.

Also in focus is San Diego’s revamped rotation. With Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove leading the way, it’s expected to be one of the best in baseball, the product of general manager A.J. Preller‘s relentless wheeling and dealing.

And, of course, all eyes will be on NL West race against the rivals up the freeway, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who stand in the way of where the Padres want to go.

Anchored by a star-studded infield featuring Tatis and third baseman Manny Machado, San Diego ended a 13-year playoff drought and won a first-round series against St. Louis last season before being swept in the Division Series by the Dodgers, who went on to win the World Series.

The Padres return their entire infield – Tatis, Machado, second baseman Jake Cronenworth and first baseman Eric Hosmer – as well as outfielders Trent Grisham, Wil Myers and Tommy Pham.

They also look to welcome back fans to Petco Park, which, due to the coronavirus pandemic, was empty when the Padres clinched a playoff spot and when they clinched a wild-card series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Thousands of fans packed downtown to celebrate that win, and the Padres hope fans get to celebrate inside the downtown ballpark this year.

Musgrove, who pitched for Grossmont High in suburban El Cajon, is looking forward to having family and friends in the ballpark as California slowly reopens.

When he heard during a Zoom call with the media that there should be limited capacity for opening day, Musgrove pounded his fists on a table and said, “Good news. It’s exciting, man.”

Musgrove said players were getting tired of the fake crowd noise pumped into empty stadiums last year.

“I’m thrilled to have fans in San Diego,” he said. “I know these fans are excited. It’s been a long time since they’ve been able to come to games and I know they’re waiting to watch this team.”

EL NINO

Tatis – a son of former big league infielder Fernando Tatis – has played in only 143 games during two seasons, including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, yet has quickly become one of the faces of baseball. He stands out because of his flair, easy smile, blond dreadlocks flowing from under his cap and his dance moves in the dugout after hitting home runs.

He vows his big contract won’t change him. “I’m playing the game I love. And I feel when you do the things with passion and with love, I feel like it’s going to reward you,” he said. “And I feel like when people ask me how I’m going to play this game, I’m just going to be the same kid every single time.”

ROTATION

The Padres ran out of pitching in the playoffs and Mike Clevinger had Tommy John surgery in mid-November. No worries for Preller, who quickly rebuilt the rotation with a flurry of blockbuster trades after Christmas. He landed Darvish and Snell in the span of about 24 hours, and a few weeks later added Musgrove.

Those moves bumped Chris Paddack, the 2020 opening day starter, down to No. 4. Dinelson Lamet, who missed the playoffs with an arm ailment, doesn’t look to be ready for the start of the season, which could open the door for Adrian Morejon or one of two top rookies, MacKenzie Gore, baseball’s top pitching prospect, or Ryan Weathers. The Padres could go with a six-man rotation at times.

NEW LOOK

The Padres haven’t identified their closer after losing Kirby Yates and Trevor Rosenthal to free agency. They have four relievers on the roster who have closed before: left-hander Drew Pomeranz, newcomer Mark Melancon, Emilio Pagan and Keone Kela.

Fans are eager to see how South Korean slugger Kim Ha-seong will do against big league pitchers. He’ll be used as a utility infielder.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

At some point this season, the Padres are expected to promote Gore, a left-hander, as well as Weathers, who made his big league debut with 1 1/3 scoreless innings in the opener of the NLDS against the Dodgers.

INJURIES

Pham has bounced back from needing 200 stiches after being stabbed in the lower back during an altercation in a strip club parking lot in mid-October. Grisham strained his left hamstring during a spring game and catcher Austin Nola fractured his left middle finger on a foul tip, leaving his status for opening day in doubt.

Braves sweep Mets, take 2-game lead in East with 3 remaining

atlanta braves
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ATLANTA — Matt Olson knew the Atlanta Braves were too talented to stay in a season-long slump.

That’s why no one panicked when the New York Mets’ division lead swelled to double digits in May. Now the Braves are on the cusp of another NL East title.

“It’s a clubhouse full of guys who want to win,” Olson said. “That’s all it’s been since the moment I walked in. That’s No. 1 on the program.”

Dansby Swanson and Olson homered for the third straight game, Travis d'Arnaud hit a go-ahead two-run single in the third inning, and Braves beat New York 5-3 on Sunday night, completing a three-game sweep of their NL East rival and taking a two-game lead in the division with three games to play.

The defending World Series champion Braves have been chasing the Mets the entire season. In the final series of the season, any combination of one Atlanta win or one Mets loss would give the Braves their fifth straight division title.

New York plays its final three games of the season against worst-in-the-majors Washington. Atlanta closes out the regular season with a three-game set in Miami. Should the season end Wednesday in a tie, Atlanta would win the division after claiming the season series 10-9 with Sunday’s victory.

“We’ve felt this confidence since the beginning of the year,” d’Arnaud said. “It just didn’t go our way early in the year, but pulling on the same rope, having each others’ backs, not trying to do too much. We’re just trying to play the game of baseball and have fun with it.”

The Braves won five of the last six games in the series, outscoring the Mets 42-19 over that stretch. New York had a 10 1/2-game lead on June 1 but now is the lower in the standings than at any point this season.

It was a lost weekend for New York, which came to Atlanta hoping to clinch its first division title since 2015. Instead, aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer lost Friday and Saturday before Chris Bassitt lasted just 2 2/3 innings on Sunday.

“We still have three games left in the regular season, we’re still going to the postseason, that doesn’t change, but there’s a lot of learning points that we can take from this series moving forward,” Mets slugger Pete Alonso said. “I thought we played well, but the Braves played better. They played excellent baseball this entire weekend.”

Swanson took Bassitt deep to right-center in the first with his 25th homer, and Atlanta took charge with a three-run third. Bassitt (15-9) issued a bases-loaded walk to Olson before d’Arnaud delivered a single up the middle to score Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley for a 4-3 lead. That chased Bassitt, who was charged with four runs, three hits and three walks.

Olson connected for his 33rd homer to make it 5-3 leading off the sixth, his 410-foot shot landing in the seats in right-center. Olson, in his first year with Atlanta, surpassed 100 RBIs for the second straight season.

“Everyone knew we were underperforming when we were flirting around that .500 range,” Olson said. “It was one of those things where it was trusting the talent we have and the guys in the clubhouse. Everybody was solid, head down, do your work, it’ll turn around and you wind up winning.”

Charlie Morton stranded runners on first and second in the first, but he gave up Daniel Vogelbach‘s 18th homer that tied it at 1 in the second. The righty struck out Francisco Lindor with runners on first and second to end the threat.

Jeff McNeil went deep off Morton in the third and Vogelbach followed with an RBI single to put the Mets up 3-1. Morton entered the game having allowed 28 homers, sixth-most in the NL.

Morton scuffled throughout his start, giving up three runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings as the 38-year-old made his first start since signing a $20 million, one-year contract to remain with Atlanta next season.

Dylan Lee (5-1) relieved Morton and pitched 1 1/3 innings, leaving after a walk to Brandon Nimmo with two outs in the sixth. Collin McHugh entered and struck out Francisco Lindor.

Raisel Iglesias faced four batters in the seventh, A.J. Minter faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen converted his third save of the series with a clean ninth.

Jansen leads the NL with 40 saves in 47 chances.

The Braves’ bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA last month, pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings the last two nights.

BIG NUMBERS

Atlanta leads the NL with 241 homers. And the Braves have their first 100-victory season since 2003.

TWO, DARN HOT

McNeil went 3 for 5 and has multiple hits in five straight games. His average is .326, one point behind the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman for the NL batting title. In 23 career games at Truist Park, McNeil is hitting .395 with 12 runs, nine doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and four walks. … Jansen tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for eighth place on the career list with 389. He’s also is the 10th closer to have four different seasons with at least 40 saves.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. … Braves 2B Ozzie Albies (broken right pinky finger) is still wearing a cast. … Braves RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique.

ATTENDANCE

The Braves drew 42,713 in their regular season finale, the club’s 42nd sellout of the season. Overall. that’s 3,129,931 for the season – and the most tickets sold since 2000. In 2019, the team’s last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta drew 2,655,100.

UP NEXT

Mets: RHP Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.95 ERA) will face Nationals RHP Cory Abbott (0-4, 5.11).

Braves: RHP Bryce Elder (2-3, 2.76 ERA) will face Marlins LHP Jesus Luzardo (3-7, 3.53).