SAN DIEGO — The Padres’ pitching staff has done it all. The Padres’ offense has done enough.
Entering the 2021 season, the expectations for both groups were perhaps as high as they’ve ever been in San Diego. Through 30 games, Padres pitchers have somehow managed to exceed those lofty projections. Their 2.81 ERA is easily the best mark in baseball.
The offense? Well, it’s been adequate, if nothing else — perfectly good enough to ride that elite pitching to a 17-13 record, with the latest of those victories coming on Monday night, a 2-0 win over the Pirates at Petco Park. Pittsburgh left-hander Tyler Anderson carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, only to see it broken up when Wil Myers’ opposite-field single sparked a late two-run rally.
In many ways the game was a microcosm of the Padres’ season itself. Six pitchers — led by spot-starter Miguel Diaz, who tossed three scoreless innings — were outstanding. They made the most of what a middling offense afforded them.
“When we’re pitching it right and playing the defense we’re capable of, we’re an incredibly tough team to score on,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler. “That’s going to allow us to stay in more games. It’s going to give us chances, like the seventh inning, to keep battling.”
Battle they did. Manny Machado worked a walk to open the frame, before Myers’ single moved him to third. Tommy Pham put the Padres on top with a sacrifice fly, then Anderson grooved a fastball to Austin Nola, who sent it into the right-center-field gap for a double.
Nola — who caught the Padres’ remarkable nine-man combined shutout in Game 3 of last year’s Wild Card Series against the Cardinals — backstopped yet another scoreless bullpen game on Monday night. The credit, he said, belongs to the electric arms the Padres have amassed among their relief corps.
Offensively, meanwhile, Nola cautioned against reading too deeply into the team’s slow start. (Nola’s presence in the lineup, after he’d spent four weeks on the injured list with a fractured finger, should help alleviate that a bit.)
“The game goes in ups and downs and waves, especially hitting,” Nola said. “But like I said, our pitching and defense has been solid. … That’s all you can ask for is to continue to get better, pitching and defense, and know that the hitting, as it goes in waves, will always come.”
In some ways the disparity between the Padres’ pitching and hitting is emblematic of larger trends within the sport. Scoring is down across the league. Tingler had a simple explanation for some of his team’s offensive woes.
“Pitchers are really freaking good,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just us.”
That’s true to some extent. The league-wide dip in offense has probably served to make the Padres’ struggles look worse than they really are. But there are apples-to-apples comparisons to be made.
For instance, judging by the pitcher-friendly standards of 2021, the Padres’ pitching staff still sits at the top of the league in a handful of meaningful categories, including ERA, strikeouts and batting average against.
The reverse is also true. Judging by the standards of 2021, the Padres’ offense is underperforming. They entered play Monday ranked 19th with a 93 in wRC+. Most concerningly, they ranked 26th with a .366 slugging percentage.
“We have guys in there that have done it a long time,” Nola said. “I know it’s going to come around. We’ve just got to continue to have good at-bats, continue to keep the line moving.”
Despite the struggles, the Padres are 7-3 in their last 10 games. Their defense — slow to start the season — has shown marked improvement in that stretch. On Monday night, second baseman Ha-Seong Kim saved a run in the top of the second, ranging far to his right to make a diving play that robbed Kevin Newman of an RBI single.
In other words, if the Padres are getting pitching and defense like they did Monday, they can probably take their time working through these kinks offensively.
“We know we don’t want to be a one-dimensional team that can only win one way,” Tingler said. “Right now, we’re winning this style. Do I expect us to start slugging the ball? I do. I think it’s going to come.”
Until it does, the current pitching-and-defense formula seems to be working just fine.