SAN DIEGO — About a month ago, the Padres wrapped up a series against the Cubs sitting eight games above .500 and looking every bit the contender they claimed they were all offseason.
Well, their doubters were quick to note that they hadn’t played much of a schedule. In the next four weeks, that was about to change. The Padres would face a slew of contenders — the Brewers twice, the Braves, the Phillies, the Giants and the Cardinals. And to cap it all off, they’d face the red-hot Mets, owners of the best record in the National League, in a three-game series at Petco Park.
So, now that we’ve arrived at the back end, are these 2022 Padres for real? Sure looks like it.
On Wednesday night, San Diego delivered a second straight comprehensive beatdown of first-place New York, this time a 13-2 victory before a jam-packed Petco Park. Sean Manaea pitched seven dominant innings, Jake Cronenworth homered and had five RBIs as part of a three-hit game and Jurickson Profar continued to thrive in the leadoff spot, collecting two hits and three RBIs.
It was an emphatic finish to what figures to be one of the toughest stretches on San Diego’s schedule this season. In that 25-game span — which also included a three-game series against the Pirates — the Padres went 15-10. They wrapped it with series victories against the division leaders in the NL Central (Brewers) and NL East (Mets).
Of course, as Profar put it, “We have a good team, too.”
As usual, the Padres rode their starting pitcher on Wednesday. Manaea allowed only one hit through the first six innings, which was Jeff McNeil’s bunt single in the second. The left-hander finished having allowed two runs (one earned) across seven frames, continuing a remarkable run for San Diego’s starting rotation.
“I thought he was great,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “He set the tone early in the game, put up zeros through six innings. He’s been really, really, really consistent.”
Manaea has pitched at least six innings in 10 of his 11 starts this season, joining teammate Joe Musgrove as the only pitchers in the NL to have done so that many times. (Fellow San Diego starter Yu Darvish has nine, tied for third.)
No team in baseball has gotten more starts of at least seven innings, either. And, as Melvin was quick to say, “the difference between six and seven is a lot.”
With consecutive seven-inning starts from Darvish and Manaea, the Padres used only four pitchers over their past two games combined. After an off-day Thursday, they’ll be set up perfectly for four games in three days this weekend against the Rockies.
Clearly, the Padres’ starters are doing their part. But they hadn’t been getting much run support until recently. San Diego’s 13 runs on Wednesday marked a season high, and every member of the starting lineup recorded a hit.
“We’re starting to spread it around offensively a little bit,” Melvin said. “Even though the first two guys in the lineup did a lot of the damage.”
Indeed, the biggest reason for the offensive resurgence has been the emergence of Profar and Cronenworth at the top. Cronenworth, in particular, struggled for much of the early part of the season. He finished a triple shy of the cycle on Wednesday and drove in a career-high-tying five runs, coming via a two-run double in the fourth and a three-run homer down the right-field line in the fifth.
Just like that, Cronenworth’s wRC+ is 98. For the uninitiated: weighted runs created plus is an all-encompassing hitting metric for which 100 is league average. So, Cronenworth has essentially worked his way back to league average this year, despite all those early-season struggles. (And he’s done so with his usual outstanding defense at second base.)
“I felt comfortable over the last three, four weeks,” Cronenworth said. “I’ve just been trying to find something to get me in the right spot. To see it paying off, it’s awesome.”
Cronenworth’s resilience can be extrapolated to that of his team. The Padres were swept last week in St. Louis and stared down consecutive series against the Brewers and Mets. They took three of four in Milwaukee. Then, after losing to New York on Monday, they responded with a vengeance, outscoring the Mets 20-2 over the final two games.
“This was big for our confidence,” Melvin said. “Because we beat really good teams, and we did it in different fashions.”
At the end of it all, the Padres didn’t merely survive their brutal month: They thrived. Now, they’ll have three straight weeks of games against teams currently sitting below .500. If they can take care of business against those opponents, they might just find themselves in pretty good shape for the next time they face a team with a winning record.
That would be June 30-July 3 — a four-game series at Dodger Stadium.