LOS ANGELES — Fernando Tatis Jr. is back at shortstop — and he looks like the National League’s leading MVP candidate again.
In the wake of an injury to Jake Cronenworth on Friday night, the Padres made the decision to move their superstar back to his preferred position on Saturday. For the first time in a month and a half, Tatis played shortstop — and he celebrated by launching his NL-leading 38th long ball of the season. Still, outside of three-hit nights from Tatis and Manny Machado, the Padres couldn’t muster much offense in a 5-4 loss at Dodger Stadium, their fifth straight against their rivals from Los Angeles.
Tatis jumped on a first-pitch cutter from Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler in the top of the fourth inning, sending it 400 feet to left-center field and tying the game at 2. After his 3-for-4 night, Tatis is hitting .500 (13-for-26) with six home runs at Dodger Stadium this season — the most for a Padres hitter at Chavez Ravine in a single season.
Defensively, Tatis also made a nice play on the run to nab Corey Seager in the bottom half of the frame. Prior to the game, he spoke of his readiness to return to short.
“I’ve been taking ground balls every single day,” said Tatis. “What else do I need to do? It’s my natural position.”
Cronenworth exited Friday’s game with a fractured left ring finger and will miss at least a few games, according to Padres manager Jayce Tingler (though the team is hopeful Cronenworth will avoid a stint on the injured list).
That injury freed up the shortstop position, and it left the Padres with a decision to make. Backup Ha-Seong Kim replaced Cronenworth on Friday night. But the Padres, tied for the second National League Wild Card spot, are in dire need of offense. Kim, an excellent defender, doesn’t offer much at the plate.
Conversely, Tatis’ move to the outfield has forced San Diego to sit one of Wil Myers, Tommy Pham or Trent Grisham on a nightly basis. The Padres wouldn’t mind getting all three into their lineup to help replace Cronenworth’s offensive production. The only way to do that was to move Tatis back to shortstop.
“It certainly gets those outfielders back in the mix on a more daily basis, that’s for sure,” said Tingler. “And we’ve got to get some of those guys going.”
No kidding. Tatis and Machado combined to go 6-for-8 with all four of the Padres’ RBIs on Saturday night. The rest of the lineup was a putrid 2-for-26.
“The way Manny and Tatis swung the bats for us, that was encouraging,” Tingler said. “We’ve got to hope that some of that is contagious up and down the order.”
Tatis had been solid since moving to the outfield in mid-August, but not quite up to his MVP-caliber standards of the previous four months. Entering play Saturday, Tatis was hitting .235/.347/.531 since he started playing in right and center field.
In the meantime, the Padres have seen their Wild Card lead over the Reds dwindle to mere percentage points. (With Cincinnati’s loss on Saturday, the two teams remain in a virtual deadlock. San Diego, having played two fewer games, leads by one in the loss column.)
“At the end of the day, this is baseball,” Tatis said. “Everybody knows this game, how it can go well for a long time, go bad for a long time. But I feel like this is a really good time for a battle.”
Of course, Tatis moved away from shortstop in the first place in an effort to keep his left shoulder healthy. He has suffered at least four partial shoulder dislocations this year, and a further recurrence could prompt season-ending surgery.
In the outfield, Tatis would have fewer balls hit his way and more time to gauge any risks. But the Padres are confident enough in Tatis’ daily work and treatment on his shoulder that they feel he can handle a move back to short.
“We know there’s risk in everything,” Tingler said. “But over the last month, he’s really done a great job at the exercises, the range of motion and strengthening the shoulder. The training group felt that his shoulder is arguably as strong as it’s ever been throughout the year. That certainly weighed in as a factor, as well.”
Tatis always said he was happy to move to the outfield, citing his health and his desire to stay on the field. But he also expressed a desire to return to shortstop in the future. That return came sooner than he and the Padres envisioned.
When X-rays revealed Cronenworth’s fracture, Tingler approached Tatis after Friday night’s loss. Tatis had a pretty good guess what his manager would be asking.
“I knew it right away,” Tatis said. “I was like: ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ … Wherever they need me, I’m going to be there.”