SAN DIEGO — Not long before he threw a baseball Friday afternoon, Joe Musgrove expressed excitement. The starting pitcher was about to play a mere round of catch for the first time in 11 days, and this was always the plan when the San Diego Padres shut him down earlier this month — Musgrove, near the end of a lost season, would begin his offseason throwing sooner than usual. But now, a mundane activity had taken on potential new meaning.
Maybe, just maybe, it was the start of something more.
“If we keep winning, I’ll keep pushing and we’ll progress maybe a little bit faster,” said Musgrove, who has been on the injured list since Aug. 1 because of shoulder capsule inflammation. “But if we’re losing and things start getting out of hand, then yeah, obviously keep it on the normal throwing program. As of now, my offseason throwing will be every other day for the next two weeks. So I’ll be in a pretty good spot whether we’re in it or out of it.”
Somehow, the Padres are still in it. They kept winning Friday night, 4-2 against the woeful St. Louis Cardinals, to run their win streak to eight games and their FanGraphs playoff odds to 1.2 percent.
It’s all a bit ridiculous, dreaming of a minuscule shot at October after months of wasteful baseball, but consider where the Padres were 11 days ago. They awoke Sept. 11 with a 67-77 record and, in the estimation of one analytical site, 0.1 percent odds of squeezing into the postseason. That was also the day Musgrove temporarily stopped throwing; based on the Padres’ place in the standings and the results of a recent MRI, doctors recommended a 10-day rest before he picked up a baseball again.
Since then, the Padres — who had not won more than three straight games all year — have won eight games in a row for the first time since June 2021 and sparked a glimmer of hope, however dangerous. They are 76-78 and four games back of the National League’s final wild-card spot with eight games to play — not much of a chance, but a chance nonetheless. So, on Friday, Musgrove played catch as scheduled while keeping an eye on the scoreboard.
“Now I’m throwing with the hopes that we find a way in and I could be an impact to the bullpen or something,” he said.
A couple of hours before Musgrove played catch in right field at Petco Park, Manny Machado took early batting practice at home plate against a pitching machine. It was only about 20 or 25 swings, Machado did not take regular batting practice, and he has been taking fewer swings in general as he continues playing through a nagging case of tennis elbow that will soon require surgery.
For the uninitiated, how does such a condition feel?
“Like s—,” Machado said late Friday. “I mean, it’s just an aggravating thing. It’s just there every single time. It doesn’t get better, it doesn’t get worse. It’s just there at all times.”
Machado smiled as he spoke. The Padres third baseman had hit a tie-breaking home run in the sixth and the game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. He finished with a season-high four hits on his way to securing his seventh career 30-homer season. He has been exclusively a designated hitter this month, and San Diego is 14-5 in September without Musgrove or Yu Darvish or Gary Sánchez or Jake Cronenworth. It is probably too little too late, but Machado intends to keep batting until the Padres’ season is over.
“That’s what superstars do,” said left fielder Juan Soto, who scored on Machado’s second homer. “They play through injuries, they play through hurt, and it’s pretty good to see that from a leader. … It just motivates a couple guys to keep playing hard even when they hurt.”
Such praise might ring a bit hollow. The Padres, when they were mostly healthy, put together the bulk of one of the most disappointing seasons in major-league history. Their leadership, throughout the organization, has come under scrutiny. Seven of their eight latest wins have come against teams in last place. San Diego, with all its superstars, has been in fourth place since May.
But the Padres have spent all season chasing what they achieved in the last 10 days. It has come with untested players such as Matthew Batten and Eguy Rosario and Matt Waldron making significant contributions, but a banged-up team has little choice. Maybe it is not a coincidence that they are finally winning without the pressure that attended them from February. So be it.
Matt Waldron fans nine
Matt Waldron strikes out nine batters over 5 2/3 innings in his start against the Cardinals
— San Diego Strong (@PadresStrong) September 23, 2023
And technically, there is still a chance.
“We’re just playing right now,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ve tried all sorts of different strategies here to try to understand where we are. I think right now we’re just playing games, and I don’t think that’s going to change at all. You want to talk about (playoff odds) in our hitters meeting, you want to talk about, ‘Hey, look, at the position we’re in’ — nope. Just keep playing.”
Doctors have told Machado to expect a five-to-seven-month recovery after he becomes the first major leaguer in recent memory — maybe ever — to undergo tennis elbow surgery. Unless the Padres pull off a miracle, he will likely have such a procedure in early October. And that could mean a $350 million third baseman does not return to full game action (hitting and defense) until April or May.
There is a good chance that 2023 will end up even more of a waste than it already is. Machado played through tennis elbow for parts of a successful 2022. Now, he has played through it for the greater part of the last three months, and the Padres are desperately trying to stay alive.
Rest, injections and other forms of therapy have not made things better. Lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, is inflammation or tearing of the tendons that bend your wrist backward away from your palm. Because Machado hits righty, his affected elbow takes less stress than his left elbow when he is on offense. But throwing or gripping a baseball, according to one medical expert, can aggravate his type of injury.
“What happens over time is that that inflammation can actually turn into degradation of the tissue and then the tissue just really can’t heal like it should,” said Dr. Eric Bowman, an orthopedic surgeon and head team physician for the Nashville Sounds and Vanderbilt University. (Bowman has not treated or been consulted by Machado.) “It’s hard for a major-league baseball player to just take time off and not do anything. So that’s the kind of situation where these injuries can become kind of repetitive or overuse-type situations and it just never really fully gets a chance to heal, and occasionally we end up doing some procedures on it.”
Tennis elbow surgery, which often involves tendon debridement or repair, remains relatively rare in professional athletes.
“Not many baseball players have gotten it,” Machado said. “I don’t think any have gotten it. So it’s a little tricky, but I think with the doctor who’s gonna do the surgery … I have complete faith in him and trust in him.”
Machado has not gotten the surgery yet because he has felt OK enough to keep hitting and, in part because the Padres still have a chance. Really, they have had a chance all season. Just not nearly as much of one as they expected.
“We’re emptying the tank,” Machado said. “We got eight games left to go out there and leave it on the field, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The danger in doing so might not be all that great. “I think at this point, it sounds like he’s pretty set on having something done,” Bowman said, “so the chances of him making it worse are pretty negligible if he’s going to have it done anyways.”
Come for the home run, stay for the curtain call. pic.twitter.com/HFaAjObvm4
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) September 23, 2023
Meanwhile, there is limited risk in continuing to dream. It is probably too little too late, but as planned, Musgrove played catch Friday before an eighth consecutive victory. He is scheduled to get another MRI around the first of October. By then, the Padres will know their fate.
“I don’t think starts are really in the picture,” Musgrove said, “but whether it’s opening a game or throwing out of the ’pen or whatever it is, I want to at least give myself a chance to throw if we can get there.”
(Photo of Manny Machado hitting a home run in the eighth inning against the Cardinals: Matt Thomas / San Diego Padres / Getty Images)