SAN DIEGO — They couldn’t possibly …
The Padres, for all of this season’s heartbreak and disappointment, suddenly find themselves back on the fringes of the National League Wild Card race. Having won a season-high eight straight games, they sit four games back with eight to play after Friday’s series-opening 4-2 victory over the Cardinals at Petco Park.
Manny Machado — playing through an elbow injury that he acknowledged will require offseason surgery — homered twice, including a go-ahead two-run blast in the eighth. Earlier this week, Machado said he planned to table that surgery at least until the Padres were eliminated from playoff contention. In short: He stuck around for moments like this.
“We’re emptying the tank,” Machado said. “We’ve got eight games left to go out there and leave it on the field. That’s what we’re doing.”
To be sure, a run to the postseason remains highly improbable. The Padres have lost tiebreakers with both the Cubs and D-backs — the two teams who currently occupy the final two Wild Card spots. There are three other teams they’ll need to jump as well.
In some ways, this late-season push — if, indeed, it ends without a playoff berth — only serves to exacerbate the issues in San Diego. This is a team loaded with high-end talent. So why did it take until mid-September for them to start playing like it?
But, hey, if they keep on winning, and a few other teams ahead of them keep on losing, things might get awfully interesting over the season’s final week.
“We’re going to believe until the last game,” said Juan Soto, who pounded out three hits on Friday night.
A week ago, after a win over the Dodgers, the Padres arrived in Oakland, where Bob Melvin was asked what the Padres truly had left to play for. His response was subtle, but indicated he wasn’t yet ready to concede the season.
“We’d have to basically run the table,” Melvin said — and, sure enough, the Padres are halfway there with eight games remaining, all against teams currently .500 or worse.
The 1960 Yankees hold the record for the longest season-ending winning streak at 15. The Padres have their sights set on breaking that mark — because they know that’s probably what it would take.
“At the end of the day, the only way we’re going to keep ourselves in sight is winning games,” said Soto. “That’s what we’re doing right now, winning games. Then we’ll worry about the other guys.”
Of course, even if the Padres were to win out, they’d need a significant measure of help. Lately, they’ve gotten it. The D-backs, Marlins and Reds all lost on Friday. The Cubs beat the Rockies (the result that, given the standings and the tiebreakers, probably impacted the Padres most). But they lost consecutive games to the Pirates before that.
In any case, the Padres insist they aren’t paying attention to any of it.
“We’re just playing right now,” Melvin said. “We’ve tried all sorts of strategies here to try to understand where we are. I think right now, we’re just playing games.”
On Friday night — in an indication of how wrong things have gone this season — they entrusted their suddenly revamped playoff hopes to rookie Matt Waldron. Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove are on the injured list. The Rich Hill trade has thus far proven a bust.
So Waldron, a knuckleballer with a 5.16 ERA in six career outings, took the ball. And he gave the Padres precisely what they needed, working 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball and striking out nine. Waldron exited with the game tied at 1 before Machado hit the first of his two go-ahead homers.
Machado, of course, is playing through lateral epicondylitis, more commonly known as tennis elbow, in his right arm. He said he’s been told that surgery comes with a recovery time of about six months, meaning the start of his 2024 season might be impacted.
As such, Machado had the option of shutting it down for the year. Instead, he chose to keep playing. Given the Padres’ plight, why, exactly, did he do so?
“It’s to play baseball,” Machado said. “I love to play baseball, and I love my teammates. I love going out there and competing every single day with them. Ultimately, we made a call at the beginning of the year. It was to try to reach a goal. That goal’s still not done yet.”
Soto, meanwhile, was a bit more succinct when asked his thoughts on Machado playing through pain and carrying the Padres to a victory that kept their slim playoff hopes alive.
“That,” said Soto, “is what superstars do.”
Christine Lake is a sports fanatic who lives and breathes athletics. With an extensive background in sports journalism, he covers everything from major league championships to grassroots sports events. When she’s not on the field or at the stadium, you’ll find Christine coaching youth sports teams.