SAN DIEGO — Fernando Tatis Jr. crept down the third-base line, waiting to see if Cionel Pérez would turn his head. The left-hander never did, not until it was too late.
So Tatis kept going and started sprinting. Soon, he was the author of perhaps the most electric play of what has been a sobering season at Petco Park: a straight steal of home.
“I was going crazy when I did it,” Tatis said after the San Diego Padres’ 5-2, series-clinching win over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday.
The same was true of seemingly everyone in his dugout — and even those inside his clubhouse.
“I mean, you saw how he was screaming, and then just imagine a bunch of grown men screaming in here,” starting pitcher Blake Snell said as he stood at his locker. “As much as he was with the belly screams, we were too.”
Fernando Tatis Jr. steals home with ease! pic.twitter.com/caoMIMMWom
— MLB (@MLB) August 17, 2023
It was a night of visceral emotion in a building where the home team has repeatedly attracted sellout crowds and regularly repulsed with its performance. The Padres, not far removed from a brutal series in the desert, won a rubber game against a first-place club. They kept alive their playoff hopes, however uncertain those have become. And, especially late, they played with the kind of spark that has seemed absent for weeks, if not months.
With the Padres leading 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Trent Grisham cranked a solo home run. Two batters later, Tatis logged his third single of the game, prompting the Orioles to insert Pérez to face Juan Soto. The move immediately backfired: Tatis stole second and took third on a throwing error by Pérez. When the reliever finally threw his first pitch to Soto for a called strike, Tatis noticed something. It wasn’t just that, with a lefty batting, Orioles third baseman Gunnar Henderson was shifted toward second base.
“(Pérez) was trying to take a little bit of time, probably trying to execute against one of the best hitters in baseball,” Tatis said. “Second time around, I just took advantage right away. And I just went for it.”
A second later, Tatis was responsible for the Padres’ first straight steal of home since Travis Jankowski achieved the feat in 2016 (and Tatis’ first straight steal of home since he was in the minor leagues in 2017). The Orioles were caught off guard — Pérez never threw home — as was an amazed Soto. (“I was just shocked,” Soto said. “I just jumped out of the box. It’s really impressive what he can do.”) And a team that has frequently failed in close games gained more breathing room but also a jolt.
“You could feel it in the dugout,” first baseman Jake Cronenworth said. “Like, the energy changed in the stadium, in the dugout. That’s what he brings to this team, and that’s what he can do.”
A half-inning later, the ballpark was still buzzing when Cronenworth left his feet to make an acrobatic snag of a line drive. The Padres, in a season largely devoid of rousing wins, went on to secure what might have been their most satisfying victory.
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) August 17, 2023
Yet, in the grand scheme of 2023, it was only one game for the only club that has yet to win more than three games in a row. The Padres are 58-63, 4 1/2 games back of a wild-card spot with just a quarter of the season left to play. They will next host a 61-60 Arizona Diamondbacks team that outplayed them over a dispiriting weekend. Thursday, 43-year-old Rich Hill will again take the mound opposite Cy Young candidate Zac Gallen.
Still, Wednesday offered a few reasons to think it is not too late. The Padres won a second consecutive game against a first-place team. After Tuesday’s 10-run output, they avoided the type of distressing letdown that has kept them from gaining any momentum. Meanwhile, Tatis recorded back-to-back three-hit games for the first time in his career — and, for the first time in the majors, a straight steal of home.
At least for a night, he was again a positively contagious presence.
“I mean, he’s always like that,” manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s played a lot this year. And, you know, there are times where you go through some slumps where it doesn’t look like you’re energetic because you’re not getting any hits. But every time he’s on base, every time he’s playing like that, you feel a lot of energy from him.”
Since returning from a PED suspension in April, Tatis has played in 101 out of 102 games. The right fielder has excelled amid a position change. On offense, he has fallen short of his own lofty expectations while suffering some of the worst luck of any hitter. The 24-year-old’s body language during a recent slump reminded some onlookers of the second half of 2021, when Tatis and the Padres slogged through a historic collapse.
They can write a better ending to 2023, of course, and it could start with their most dynamic player. Tatis has emerged from his drought at the plate by shortening his swing. He has earned consistent praise from Melvin for his work ethic and attitude. The body-language interpreters are not always right.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, though, there was no confusion about how Tatis and those inside his dugout felt.
“I kid with him that he’s a witch and he rides his broom around the bases,” Melvin said. “And that’s pretty much exactly what happened there.”
“When he does stuff like that, that other people can’t do,” Cronenworth said, “he’s a wizard out there.”
(Photo of Fernando Tatis Jr. stealing home during the seventh inning Wednesday against the Baltimore Orioles: Gregory Bull / Associated Press)