Through the first 14 1/2 innings of the Padres’ first-round playoff series against St. Louis, Fernando Tatis Jr. was having a somewhat disappointing postseason debut. The most exciting player in baseball was 2-for-7 with two runs scored, but the Padres had come into the bottom of the first trailing in both games, as an injury-devastated rotation had two disastrous starts.
An offense like San Diego’s is never truly out of the game, but the Fathers needed to capitalize on their opportunities. When Tatis dug in against Giovanny Gallegos with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, it was the fourth time in five plate appearances that Tatis had come to bat with at least two men on base. The previous results: three strikeouts, an inning-ending groundout, and nine men left on.
This time, however: boom.
Tatis’s three-run home run cut the Cardinals’ lead to 6-5. The next batter, Manny Machado, homered as well to tie the game. After Wil Myers put the Padres on top in the seventh inning with a home run of his own, Tatis added a second blast to extend the lead to three. An appropriately ostentatious bat flip ensued.
The Cardinals never truly went away, and when the Padres recorded the final out of a season-extending 11-9 win, the tying run was on base. But San Diego is no longer sleepwalking through this series, and Tatis has announced himself on the biggest stage he’s encountered to date.
The Padres are not a one-man team: Myers and Machado equaled Tatis’s offensive production this season, and Dinelson Lamet will appear on more than a few Cy Young votes. But Tatis is San Diego’s avatar, the player whose arrival in the majors last season heralded a new era of contention. The player whose talent and panache turned the Padres from baseball’s dullest team to its coolest. (It’s as if the club’s new brown-and-yellow color scheme appeared by magic.)
And more immediately important to this series, Tatis is San Diego’s offensive instigator. While Tatis was coming up short in key moments, the Padres’ offense couldn’t seem to get into gear, leaving them unable to reel in the Cardinals entirely. Had that trend continued through the end of Game 2, it would have been a disappointing end for a Padres team that sensed a hot iron and failed to strike.
It would not, however, have been the end of the world. The Padres are still very much a team on the rise. Tatis, who despite being the size of a tree is still only 21 years old, is expected to be one of MLB’s biggest stars through the mid-2030s. The list of legends who biffed it in their first playoff appearance is long, and includes Mike Trout, Barry Bonds, and Ted Williams. He’d get another shot if he needed it.
But he didn’t. From the moment he took Gallegos deep, the Padres’ offense burst into life like a well-shaken can of ginger ale. San Diego obliterated its franchise records for runs, hits, and home runs in a postseason game, and Tatis and Myers became the second pair of teammates to hit multiple home runs in the same postseason game. (The first was Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. There are auspicious historical parallels, and then there’s literally Ruth and Gehrig in the Called Shot game.)
Maybe this hyperbole is premature. The Padres still need to beat St. Louis tomorrow in order to advance to the second round, and with this rotation denuded of its two best starters, manager Jayce Tingler told reporters he has “no idea” who will pitch in Game 3. But Tatis is the kind of player who invites hyperbole, who promises the exceptional and then delivers.
Among the major North American team sports, baseball is the one upon which one single player has the least impact. It’s the only one in which a star player can’t take the ball on every pivotal play with the season on the line. And yet, no matter what a player achieves in the regular season, performance in key October situations is still a prerequisite for the most prestigious brand of stardom. Numbers are necessary, but memories round out the legacy. These can’t be created by force of will or time, but only by a specific, perfect confluence of moment and man.
Tatis encountered such a moment on Thursday night and provided the first great memory of his career. Here’s to many more.