Padres continue to waste a season of strong starting pitching

SAN DIEGO — For five innings Tuesday at Petco Park, Blake Snell looked like the Cy Young Award winner he once was and the Cy Young candidate he again is. The San Diego Padres lefty recorded two strikeouts apiece in the first, second and fifth innings. He easily retired the side in the fourth and the sixth. The top of the third would go down as a blip amid a quality start.

Even that was worse than it could have been. On his second trip through the Miami Marlins’ lineup, Snell surrendered a long solo home run, three consecutive singles, an RBI groundout and another single; for the first time in 10 outings, he had yielded multiple runs in an inning. But a throwing error by shortstop Xander Bogaerts allowed one of Miami’s three runs in the inning to score. An outfield assist by right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr. denied what would have been a fourth run.

By the time his night was over, Snell had joined Mat Latos and Gaylord Perry as Padres to record 17 consecutive starts in a season without allowing more than three runs. (Latos holds the club record, with 22 such starts in a row.) This year, only Snell and the Minnesota Twins’ Sonny Gray have authored a streak that long. The former, by multiple measures, has been the most dominant starter in the majors since late May.

So, Tuesday’s 3-0 loss went down as another reminder of what has been wasted amid a largely disjointed, hugely disappointing season.

The Padres rank second in the majors with a 3.75 ERA from their starters. Snell’s 2.73 ERA leads all qualifying pitchers. Michael Wacha’s 2.63 ERA is the third lowest among pitchers who have worked at least 90 innings. Snell can depart via free agency this winter. So can Wacha, if the Padres let him. Seth Lugo (3.92 ERA) has pitched well enough to decline a $7.5 million player option for 2024.

The last time San Diego finished in the top two for starting-pitching ERA was 2007, when Jake Peavy won the franchise’s last Cy Young Award and the Padres lost a controversial wild-card tiebreaker game to Matt Holliday and the Colorado Rockies.

The 2023 Padres have similarly excelled at limiting opposing offenses. In other critical areas, however, they have bombed. A 60-67 record is the result. Only a relative miracle in the next 35 games would get them into a 12-team postseason.

“There are a lot of stats we haven’t been able to make much of. Whether it’s run differential, whether it’s overall run prevention, it’s just a lot,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Our timing has been horrible. We have not been good in certain facets. Other ones, we’ve been good in, but not good enough to win games.”

The Padres, of course, will hope for improved offensive luck and better all-around timing next season. But they might have to chase such a turnaround without Snell, a Scott Boras client who has pitched more than well enough to secure a nine-figure contract. And San Diego will soon face a significant decision on Wacha, whose contract includes a two-year, $32 million club option and — if that is declined — player options at $6.5 million for 2024 and $6 million for each of the subsequent two years. The calculus is complicated because Wacha spent six weeks on the injured list this summer and already had a history of shoulder trouble.

The versatile Nick Martinez (3.94 ERA) has his own creative contract and might be more amenable to exercising the attached player options, but Martinez has spent most of the season in the bullpen and has not matched Wacha’s consistency as a starter. Meanwhile, it would be a surprise if Lugo does not explore free agency after a mostly productive return to starting.

The Padres would not necessarily find themselves in a bind if Snell and, say, one other starter sign elsewhere. The upcoming free-agent class appears deep with potential replacements; even for the 29 teams that miss out on Shohei Ohtani, there could be options such as Aaron Nola, Julio Urías and Gray. And the Padres farm system, which appears to have been restocked rather quickly, contains several intriguing pitching prospects. A few, including Jairo Iriarte, Adam Mazur and Ryan Bergert, have already been pushed to the Double-A level.

Fully developing a prospect still poses a challenge for the organization. In nine years as general manager, A.J. Preller has drafted only one starting pitcher, first-rounder Cal Quantrill, who has compiled more than four Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. A less-successful first-round pick, Ryan Weathers, was traded to Miami on Aug. 1 and served up a grand slam to Padres second baseman Ha-Seong Kim on Monday.

Tuesday, at least, brought another showcase of one of Preller’s most fruitful trades. A few days after Christmas 2020, the Padres traded then-top pitching prospect Luis Patiño, catcher Francisco Mejía and two other minor leaguers to Tampa Bay in exchange for Snell. Patiño was jettisoned this month to the Chicago White Sox. Mejía was designated for assignment Tuesday morning. Several hours later, Snell took the mound at Petco Park as a pitcher headed toward a hefty payday.

He stumbled only in the top of the third. With one out, Jorge Soler smashed a 442-foot home run and reacted a bit too demonstratively for Snell’s liking; the pitcher appeared to briefly voice his displeasure as Soler began his trot around the bases. (“I ain’t gonna talk about that,” Snell said afterward.) Then, Bogaerts’ error compounded the pitcher’s frustration. (“The scorekeepers said those are earned runs when they’re not,” he said. “So, we’ll contest that.”)

Snell did acknowledge his own culpability in the inning.

“I would say the two batters after the home run, yeah, I let my emotions get the best of me,” he said. “Gave them good pitches to hit. After that, I controlled them. … You can’t have those little blow-ups. It’s probably one of the first ones I’ve had in a long, long time. I’ve never been that upset. So yeah, just learn from it, get better and don’t give up runs. But being emotional, you will.”

The Padres can live with a lapse in judgment. Since May 25, Snell leads all qualifying pitchers with a 1.58 ERA. Yet San Diego has managed to lose six of the 17 games he started in that span. Tuesday provided a microcosm of squandered pitching: Miami’s Jesús Luzardo, a rare lefty starter who throws harder than Snell, rebounded from a recent bad stretch to shut out the Padres for seven innings.

The home offense did almost nothing against the Marlins bullpen, either — after Kim singled with one out in the bottom of the sixth, Tatis, Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Bogaerts and Jake Cronenworth each followed by striking out. San Diego finished with as many errors (three) as hits.

“We just have not had good late-inning at-bats,” Melvin said. “It’s gone on most of the year. … It was a strength last year. It has not been this year. And I think maybe sometimes it gets to snowball, you tighten up a little bit late in games, wanting to do a little bit too much. But we have not also been able to follow up good games with good games after that.

“We just didn’t have enough base runners to really put any pressure on them tonight.”

In search of a late-season miracle, the Padres are trying to maximize their pitching staff. Lugo, not the recently acquired Rich Hill (9.53 ERA in three starts), is scheduled to start Wednesday’s series finale on regular rest. Hill, who was available out of the bullpen Monday, could start Saturday in Milwaukee, but the Padres might be inclined to give Pedro Avila (1.17 ERA in seven appearances) the first inning that day.

And soon, Joe Musgrove (3.05 ERA) should resume throwing. The right-hander, on the injured list with inflammation in his right shoulder capsule, is scheduled to play catch Friday. Yet even if he does, it is expected to be a gradual buildup. A mid-September return is possible, but if the Padres continue to lose games, it might be wiser for Musgrove to return next spring instead. An injury to a shoulder capsule is worrisome, especially for a veteran starter and a franchise that signed him to a $100 million contract.

That could add to the future uncertainty of the Padres’ starting rotation. Tuesday against the Marlins, there was something tangible to lament.

“It’s very disappointing,” Snell said after the team’s 12th loss in 20 games this month. “We want to get to the playoffs; we want to win. So, it hurts losing to them, especially when I know that we have the team to beat them and beat every team we play. Just want to win, get to the playoffs and feel that feeling again. There’s nothing like the playoffs. Hopefully, we can get it going, start winning and give this city what they deserve: a playoff team.”

(Photo of Blake Snell: Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

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