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Real or not? Padres have plenty of reasons to stay optimistic

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Published in Baseball
Sunday, 05 May 2019 19:10

The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres played a terrific series over the weekend in San Diego, before crowds of 44,000-plus each game, with the Dodgers winning on Friday and Saturday with runs in the top of the ninth, and then Hunter Renfroe providing one of 2019's signature moments with two outs in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday:

I love everything about this highlight. The game on the line, the blast, the bat raised in triumph, the call from Don Orsillo, Padres fans going crazy, Renfroe rounding the bases in joy, the celebration at home plate, with Eric Hosmer taking the time to carefully toss his helmet aside and Austin Hedges jumping all over Renfroe:

The win was even more dramatic considering the circumstances leading up to Kenley Jansen's final pitch. Kirby Yates, so dominant all season as the closer, had allowed both of those ninth-inning runs to pick up the losses on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Chris Taylor's two-run homer off Robbie Erlin in the eighth gave the Dodgers a 5-4 lead.

Then the Padres loaded the bases with no outs off Jansen -- including two bunt singles by Manuel Margot and Wil Myers -- only to look like they would squander that opportunity when Greg Garcia inexplicably struck out looking on a 3-2 cutter down the middle to end a nine-pitch at-bat and Francisco Mejia popped up to first base.

Renfroe, by the way, has five career grand slams, tied for second most in the majors since his debut in 2016, behind Manny Machado's seven. It was the first pinch-hit walk-off grand slam in Padres history and their first walk-off win of the season. What could have been a demoralizing series instead ends on a positive note.

Can the Padres hang with the big boys all season? The victory leaves them 2.5 games behind the Dodgers and 1.5 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. On paper, the Dodgers certainly remain the heavy favorites to win the division. They have the talent and the track record, so FanGraphs projects them as the much better team moving forward and gives them an 89 percent chance to win the division compared to the Padres' odds of 3.9 percent.

Still, there have been a good number of positives so far for San Diego. Some thoughts on the up-and-coming exciting young Padres:

1. The young rotation has been excellent, with a 3.52 ERA, fourth best in the majors. Rookie Chris Paddack has been the breakout star, but Matt Strahm (3.03 ERA) and Nick Margevicius (3.47) have been solid, while Eric Lauer (4.30 ERA) and Joey Lucchesi (5.00 ERA) have been a little less consistent. Cal Quantrill and Pedro Avila also have made spot starts, meaning four rookies have started a game while Lauer and Lucchesi are in their second seasons.

Can they keep it going? The group has done a good job of limiting walks and home runs and has allowed the third-lowest exit velocity among rotations, behind only the Dodgers and Rays. These guys are good and pitching with a lot of confidence.

Margevicius is the big surprise, jumping from Class A to the majors, but his deception and pitching smarts help make up for a lack of premium velocity. You also wonder how a rotation of four lefties will play out over an entire season and the depth will be tested at some point if there are innings limits on Paddack of Margevicius. There is also the possibility of signing Dallas Keuchel, probably after the draft in June if he's still in play.

2. Kirby Yates is fine. Yes, the back-to-back losses weren't pretty, but he's fine. I know there is always doubt when a guy comes out of nowhere like Yates basically did last season, but he has been dominant for more than a season. He's fine. If Hosmer comes up with Max Muncy's grounder on Friday night instead of having it glance off his glove, Yates pitches a scoreless inning and nobody worries about what happened Saturday.

3. Manny Machado has been fine ... but needs to do better. He's hitting .236/.317/.449 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs after hitting one home run on Friday and two on Saturday. His defense at third has been excellent (plus-5 defensive runs saved) and he's filled in nicely at shortstop with Fernando Tatis Jr. on the injured list. I do wonder if he has been trying to do too much -- his strikeout rate is way up from 2018 (14.7 percent to 22.5) because his swing-and-miss rate is up over 8 percentage points.

Here's why I think you'll start seeing Machado's numbers go up. He's hitting .167 with zero strikes and .200 (4-for-20) when putting the first pitch in play. Last year, he hit .432 with zero strikes and .467 when putting the first pitch in play (49-for-105). This stretch of four home runs in five games should cut down on his overanxiousness and get him going.

4. They need to figure out second base. Padres second basemen are hitting .169/.259/.338. Ian Kinsler is back in good graces and did have a good week with seven hits and two home runs. Luis Urias, demoted after a 24-at-bat trial run, has been tearing it up in Triple-A (.338/.408/.794), so he could be back for another shot. For now, it's Kinsler, but Urias deserves another opportunity.

5. The fans matter! All three games against the Dodgers were basically sellouts. Yes, there were a lot of Dodgers fans in attendance, but the series drew more than 133,000 fans. A series at home against the Dodgers in the first of week of May last year drew just 65,000.

6. A rivalry is reborn. As the attendance numbers show, Padres-Dodgers is back on. This was just the first three of 19 games between the clubs. Here's hoping those three games in San Diego the final week of the season will matter.

Lucky 13th: The Pirates had their own come-from-behind walk-off home run, this one from Starling Marte in the 13th inning to stun the A's:

That's now two games the A's have lost after leading in extra innings -- the same as the rest of MLB combined (ouch).

It's hard to know what to make of the Pirates. They just lost Jameson Taillon for at least four weeks with an elbow strain, so the strength of the team takes a hit. They're a game over .500, but have been outscored by 26 runs. They're 1-5 in blowout games and have been outscored 52-12 in those games. A poor record in blowout games is almost always a sign of a bad team, but the Pirates actually have good run prevention so far. They just haven't scored (only the Giants and Marlins have scored fewer runs), so they're rarely on the good end of a blowout.

Here's one reason if you want to believe in the Pirates:

If those four start playing better ... well, you never know.

Brewers sweep Mets: Quite the weekend at home for the Brewers. They won 3-1 on Friday as Josh Hader earned a two-inning save, striking out the final three batters with two runners on base. They won 4-3 in 18 innings on Saturday, with Ryan Braun singling in two runs to win it. With Hader unavailable, the bullpen allowed just two runs over 12⅔ innings. On Sunday, Christian Yelich returned to the starting lineup and did this:

Meanwhile, Lorenzo Cain made yet another spectacular catch:

He left the game with a hand bruise after slamming into the wall, but X-rays were negative.

In case you missed it: Cain's catch was amazing, but the play of the weekend went to Kevin Pillar on Saturday night:

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