Manny Machado continues to drive Padres success

SAN DIEGO — In a suite at the Delano Hotel in Las Vegas during the 2018 winter meetings, the Padres’ front office grew increasingly frustrated. They didn’t like the price tags on some mediocre third basemen in free agency. The trading market was also turning slower than usual.

Late at night — or early in the morning, it’s all a bit of a blur — general manager AJ Preller phoned assistant general manager Josh Stein with such a painfully obvious idea.

“Let’s just sign Machado,” Preller said.

And, really, that’s where it all started. All that.

On Friday night, the Padres host the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, the first playoff game in front of San Diego fans in 16 years. It is worth asking: is all this possible without Manny Machado?

In what has been a turbulent season for the Padres, Machado has been the stabilizing force. He posted what is undeniably one of the best seasons in Padres history – leading the National League with 7.4 fWAR while hitting .298/.366/.531 with his usual Gold-Glove caliber defense. The last Padre with a higher WAR – Ken Caminiti in 1996 – was the last Padre to win MVP.

Machado’s teammates insist that those numbers only tell half the story. When Machado suffered a horrific ankle injury in late June, the team wondered if he could be out for months. He came back in 10 days. Machado played injured and his numbers took a hit – his July OPS of 0.694 was easily his all-month low. But with Fernando Tatis Jr. on IL reinforcements and Trade Deadline not yet on the way, the Padres needed all of Machado’s input.

Then, in early August, the Padres welcomed Juan Soto, Josh Hader, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury to Deadline. It can be difficult to shake up a clubhouse mid-season, but Soto said he always felt welcome.

“Manny is the most important thing because he’s sort of the captain of the team,” Soto said. “So if the captain makes you feel comfortable, that’s a huge thing. He was just telling me how things work there and how we need to be. I think I was okay with almost everything. was going on in there, and I felt good about it.”

The Padres don’t give the title “Captain,” but make no mistake, it’s Machado.

“He’s our leader,” Game 3 starter Blake Snell said. “He’s the guy everyone’s looking at.”

Manager Bob Melvin said: “He’s very the guy, so to speak, in the clubhouse. … It’s quite difficult to be the guy on the pitch and to have to perform. It’s even harder to be the clubhouse guy. And he does it like he does on the pitch, it’s easy.”

In the 2018-19 offseason, they paid a premium for it. They weren’t the same Padres back then. They had just completed their eighth consecutive losing season. They had spent money to extend Wil Myers and sign Eric Hosmer, but they had never – in their entire history – signed a player like Machado.

In the months since that Winter Meetings reveal, the Padres have put the wheels in motion. The property signed Machado’s suit, and in mid-February he signed a 10-year, $300 million deal, the richest free agent deal in American sports history at the time. .

Then the A’s manager, Melvin sat down and took note.

“I remember the years and the dollars and I was like, ‘Wow,'” Melvin recalled. “But that’s what you’re paying for. When you look at long-term contracts like that, you don’t really know how they’re going to play out. But what he’s done here – what he continues to do and what he’s done this year, so deep in his contract — it’s one of the best contracts out there.

“The moment you’re like, ‘Wow, how can someone really perform at this level?’ But he certainly did.”

Four years into this contract, it looks like Machado’s team. And, suddenly, it feels like Machado’s moment. The Padres entered the NLDS as underdogs against the team with the most baseball wins. If they ever needed an MVP-caliber Machado, it was now.

“We know they’re the division champions,” Machado said. “They have the best record in baseball. They have played very well against us all year. But at the end of the day, we will compete. We’ll leave him on the pitch.”

When San Diego lost Game 1, David Ortiz proclaimed the Dodgers to be the “daddy” of the Padres on national television. Then, a night later, Machado opened the scoring with a laser home run in the first inning against Clayton Kershaw. He watched the ball settle into the left-field seats, then looked into the Padres dugout. The message was clear: he had this. They had that.

After going 2 for 5 with a home run, double and brilliant glove work in the Padres’ Game 2 win, Machado texted Ortiz, who noted on air that the third baseman from San Diego responded with two simple words: “Now what? ”

Before reaching free agency four years ago, Machado had spent the 2018 playoffs with the Dodgers. His experience was decidedly different. He batted just .227 and made headlines more for the controversy than his play on the court.

It looks like ancient history now. If Machado was a volatile presence in October, he feels the exact opposite in 2022 – a stabilizing presence for a team determined to shock the baseball world.

“You just evolved,” Machado said of lessons learned from his past playoff experiences. “It’s just the human nature of things. You learn from mistakes, you learn from good ones and you learn from bad ones. It’s all about evolving. »

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