Fernando Tatis Jr. led off for the San Diego Padres for only the third time this season, on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium. Once again he struck out, this time against Los Angeles Dodgers star right-hander Walker Buehler, who got him swinging through a blistering 97-mph fastball.
The whiff set in motion a four-game series between these two National League West contenders in a rivalry that’s hotter than anything since the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were clawing at each other.
Tatis came into the series in a 3-for-19 slump, striking out in nearly 50% of those at bats. He’s playing with a torn labrum and dislocated left shoulder and is hitting .163, this coming after a .208 month last September. He has two homers, three RBIs and two stolen bases.
Tatis showed a pulse later in the game, getting a hit in four at bats, plating the winning run on the back end of an eighth-inning double-play grounder to short, as the Padres held on for the 3-2 victory.
Though manager Jayce Tingler said before the game he’s beginning to see life in Tatis’ bat, the Padres still may have reason to worry, 340 million reasons, in fact, based on the dollar value of the 14-year contract they gave the 22-year-old shortstop this spring.
The shoulder may have to be surgically repaired, although Tatis said earlier this week he’s trying to ward off that possibility.
“I don’t feel like it,” Tatis said. “I’ll reach out to [the doctors] after the season to see how everything’s looking, but I definitely feel 100 percent. Let’s see what is continuing to happen. I feel like that’s a thing I can manage.”
When asked whether the Padres have insured the Tatis contract, the richest awarded in club history, general manager A.J. Preller demurred.
“It’s club policy that we won’t comment on insurance details for contracts,” Preller responded via text message.
Keep in mind that Tony Gwynn, the best offensive player in Padres history, earned $47.2 million for a 20-year career. Gwynn won eight NL batting titles, amassed 3,141 hits, finished batting .338, and made the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, along with Cal Ripken Jr., in their first year of eligibility.
Tatis is just getting started, but his money is guaranteed even if he fails to play another game.
Tatis aggravated the shoulder during spring training, and at the time Tingler revealed the injury was chronic, dating back to his days as a teenager in the Chicago White Sox organization, long before the 2016 trade that brought him to the Padres for veteran pitcher James Shields.
Knowledge of the injury didn’t stop the Padres from giving him all that money.
The shoulder has landed him on the injured list once already this season. He’s struggled at the plate since his return for last weekend’s thrilling three-game series against the Dodgers in San Diego.
The injury, and a possible recurrence, “could be in the back of his mind,” Tingler said.
He was 1-for-11 in the series with only one RBI on a homer with six whiffs, committing two of his seven errors on the season, as the defending World Series champion Dodgers won two of the three games. Tatis had three errors in the 57 games he played last year during the COVID-abbreviated 60-game season.
It’s a lot for both the team and Tatis to live up to, and he’s not going to earn $340 million in a single at bat, game or even a season. In any event, Tatis is trying to play through injury and earn his money, a tough nut to crack for a player of his maturity.
“My guess it’s a little bit of a combination of all those things,” Tingler said. “Plus because of the shoulder he never got into the flow of some of the workdays and at bats he needed during spring training. Because of the injury it’s just going to be the reps more than anything, and the timing. And we’re starting to see some things where he’s possibly trending in the right direction.”
Suffice it to say, Gwynn never started a single season batting under .200. During all his Aprils he averaged .346. His worst month over the course of his career was July, at .325.
The longest slump of his entire career was 0-for-19 in July 1998 when Gwynn was on the downside because of knee injuries, during a season in which the Padres won a club-record 98 games and their second of only two NL pennants. Incidentally, he had just come off winning four consecutive batting titles and finished the 1998 season hitting .321.
But there was only one Tony Gwynn, who retired in 2001 and died from cancer in 2014 at the age of 54.
Tatis certainly has promise, and in moments flashes his brilliance. When he faced Buehler again to open the fourth, Tatis slammed a single to left. A five-tool player with amazing speed, he stole second and raced around to score standing up on Manny Machado’s single. In the field, he made an excellent pivot, taking Jake Cronenworth’s throw at second base on a snappy double-play to end a Dodger bases-loaded eighth-inning threat.
Tatis is the son of Fernando Tatis Sr., who earned his reputation becoming the first and only player to hit two grand slams in the same inning. When Junior hears the critics, he says he turns to his dad and family for solace.
“At the end of the day, you just try to ignore those people,” Tatis said. “I’ve learned to block those things because everyone has a different opinion. When that happens, there are a lot of people who think positively, but there are even more people who think negatively. At the end of the day, the best thing you could do is ignore it because if you start paying attention to it, you’re going to go crazy. What I try to do is lean on my family and their support. Those are the only people that I pay attention to.”