TORONTO — If the Padres can work their way back into the playoff picture — if they can take the season’s final 2 1/2 months and finally begin to assert themselves as contenders — they’ll have their starting rotation to thank for keeping them afloat when the times were tough.
In no uncertain terms, that rotation has been outstanding this season. Its 3.71 ERA is the best mark in the National League — and that’s without Yu Darvish at his dominant best for most of the year.
Suddenly, Darvish is rounding into form, too. The veteran right-hander pitched six scoreless innings in a 2-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Wednesday night at Rogers Centre, as the Padres won their second straight game (and perhaps tilted the Trade Deadline needle ever so slightly from “seller” toward “buyer”).
It’s been a bit of a strange season for Darvish, beginning with his role for Team Japan at the World Baseball Classic. He pitched in relief in the Final, which delayed his buildup to the regular season. Darvish was mostly solid in April, but he hit a rut sometime around mid-May. Then, he dealt with an illness in June that forced him to miss a couple starts. But in three starts since he returned, Darvish has posted a 2.25 ERA.
“Last two starts he’s been on point,” said Manny Machado, whose two-out, two-run single in the fifth would prove decisive. “I think even before that he was starting to feel himself. Our staff is starting to get together. Our team is starting to get together. Good things are going to be coming.”
In addition to Darvish pitching like Darvish again, the Padres got further positive news in their rotation on Wednesday. Michael Wacha played catch for the first time since he landed on the IL with a balky shoulder. A July return remains unlikely. But it might not be long after that.
And when the San Diego rotation is healthy, there aren’t many — if any — like it. Consider that the Padres have posted their NL-best rotation ERA without much organizational depth. Seventeen times this season, they have been forced to reach outside of their preferred starting five of Darvish-Wacha-Blake Snell-Joe Musgrove-Seth Lugo. Those depth starters have combined for a 7.74 ERA in those 17 outings.
Which raises an important question: What, exactly, will this rotation look like two weeks from now after the Trade Deadline? The Padres have yet to commit to a path as buyers or sellers. They appear to be open to both.
If they buy? Well, as dominant as their rotation has been, it could still probably use a back-end reinforcement, for security’s sake. (It probably wouldn’t be prudent to enter the final two months of a playoff race with five starters older than 30, hoping that all five remain healthy.)
If they sell? Do they ever have some intriguing trade pieces. Snell is the big one, almost inarguably the best pitcher in the sport over the past two months. But Lugo has been sneaky good this season as well. Both are set to become free agents after the season.
The Padres themselves would greatly prefer to avoid the latter scenario. To do so, they’ll need to win a few more games before the Deadline.
On Wednesday night, at least, everything else fell into place around Darvish’s excellent start. The defense was solid. The bullpen — Steven Wilson in the seventh, Nick Martinez in the eighth and Josh Hader in the ninth — nailed it down. And Machado, suddenly the hottest hitter on the planet, delivered the timely hit.
“Manny’s on fire right now, and not only that — big hits, too,” manager Bob Melvin said. “All it took was one today with the pitching.”
The Padres, of course, are coming off a grueling weekend in Philadelphia in which they dropped three of four. Their season felt like it was teetering.
As they’ve now done several times this season, they’ve managed to pull themselves back from the brink. Two wins in two days have shaved 1 1/2 games off their deficit in the race for the final NL Wild Card spot (now 6 1/2 games behind the Phillies).
“That hurt,” Machado said. “That stung a little bit. But you turn the page. Move onto the next series, move onto the next game. Enjoy this one tonight. We’ve played two good games [this series]. But we’ve still got another one tomorrow. We’ve got to go out there and leave it on the field.”