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Padres leaders believe team hasn't quit, might be 'trying almost too hard'

Kevin Acee, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Baseball

Manny Machado has been playing hurt most of the season.

Lately, he has also been taking groundballs and batting practice every day.

This is significant for two reasons.

First, Machado has frequently skipped on-field BP and/or pregame fielding drills this year in favor of rest and treatment for a left shoulder injury that has bothered him since April. Neither Machado nor anyone else will specify the injury, but it has required extra care to allow him to continue playing, and multiple people in the Padres organization have said the injury is significant enough to have affected his power numbers.

Yet he has started 133 games, tied with Jake Cronenworth for most on the team, and is still playing at a high level in the field. He is the only Padres player to have started each of the team's past 65 games. Everything he has done to keep his body as healthy as possible has been so he could be in the lineup at this point in the season.

"I'm trying to win," Machado said Tuesday when asked about playing hurt. "That's what they pay me for."

That has not changed even as the Padres have stopped winning.

Which brings us to the second reason his participation in pregame activities is noteworthy.

Machado essentially stopped taking batting practice toward the end of 2019, a season in which his performance dropped off precipitously and when, he has privately acknowledged, his effort waned as it became clear around that year's trade deadline that the Padres were not truly invested in winning.

He wasn't the only one. He was just the most important.

As people inside the organization became concerned a similar team-wide plummet might occur this season, they kept an eye primarily on Machado.

This has been a different man, they say.

Machado is batting just .236 with a .654 OPS since Aug. 4, a skid that has dropped his season numbers (.274 and .825) from among the National League's top-10. These are reminiscent of his post-July skid in '19, when he fell from batting .278 with an .863 OPS to .256 and .796 by season's end.

He is among multiple players who must perform better if the Padres are to stop reeling and win the postseason spot they seemed destined to get for much of the season.

The team's results have done little to push back against the notion the players have all but given up on this season. They entered Wednesday's game having lost 21 of 29 and hit a major league low .199 while doing it.

 

Such sustained awfulness will almost always come across as a team being flat.

The struggle has for some time more likely been at least partially due to the opposite.

"I think there's a little bit of pressing," Wil Myers said Tuesday night, becoming about the 15th player or coach to say so in the past few weeks.

"There's nothing we can say in the clubhouse to tell somebody to try harder," reliever Craig Stammen said Wednesday. "Because everybody is trying almost too hard at this point."

The question remains as to why the Padres have not been able to right themselves over the past month, a stretch that has seen them fall from 4½ games up in the wild-card race on Aug. 11 to a game behind the St. Louis Cardinals and a half-game behind the Cincinnati Reds going into Wednesday's game.

The Padres have over the course of the past month held clubhouse meetings, talked in small groups and as individuals, switched up the music in the clubhouse, changed the T-shirts they wear, made a concerted effort to be less serious and all sorts of other things.

This is supposed to be a team with sufficient veteran guidance. Stammen holds sway over the pitchers, in particular, but is also a voice that is listened to in all corners due to his experience, evenness and character. Eric Hosmer is roundly credited with being an example of how a veteran comes to work every day no matter how things are going. He also has the cachet to ask coaches difficult questions.

The pair was asked Wednesday why, if they are the leaders they are held to be by so many, they have not been able to effect change.

"That's a good question," Hosmer said. "Baseball is one of those games you can prepare, you can do everything right, and it still doesn't go your way. That's what is going on with us. We feel we're coming here every day doing the (right) stuff, and it's just not happening."

Among the best examples of just that has been Machado.

It is his continued effort and occasional brilliance that perhaps gives credence to the reality that while this is a team perilously close to choking, it is not one that has stopped showing life.

A team that has quit generally doesn't make plays like the one Machado was in the middle of Tuesday.

In the first inning, Jurickson Profar ran 110 feet and slid on his knees to catch a fly ball at the warning track in the left field corner. He popped up and threw to the infield, where Machado cut off the ball and fired to first base to double up Tommy La Stella.

"He is a stud," Stammen said of Machado. "He has surpassed all expectations I had when we signed him. He has even grown into more of a leader. He has accepted that. … We look at Manny. Same way we look at (Fernando) Tatis. Their body language, their effort, their energy will create the same energy for the rest of the team. When they have same energy, we follow behind. Whether that equates to wins or losses, I don't know. But if you watch us before the games, we're having a blast. It has just not gone in our favor."

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